Israeli Forces Mass at Gaza Border

Israeli aircraft struck more targets in the Gaza Strip (search) on Friday as the army massed an armored force in apparent preparation for a major military operation against militants in Jebaliya, the Palestinians' biggest refugee camp.

Some 200 tanks, armored personnel carriers and armored bulldozers assembled along Israel's border on Gaza's north and east of Gaza. Security officials quoted Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (search) as ordering troops to "exact a price" from the militants. Soldiers began erecting makeshift camps, indicating commanders could be planning a prolonged operation.

At the same time, masked Palestinian gunmen fortified positions in the maze of alleys that lace Jebaliya, a teeming half square mile that is home to 106,000 people, one of the most densely populated places on Earth.

Seven Palestinians were killed and at least 32 wounded by the missiles and in a failed attack on an Israeli border crossing Friday, while two others died from wounds suffered a day earlier. Fighting on Thursday killed 28 Palestinians and wounded 139, most of them in Jebaliya, in the worst single-day toll in 30 months.

The Israeli death toll stood at five, including two preschoolers whose killing Wednesday by a Palestinian rocket led the Israeli government to order what was shaping into one of the largest offensives of the 4-year-old Palestinian uprising.

Underscoring the difficulty of stopping such attacks, another homemade Qassam rocket fired Friday hit Sderot (search), the dead children's hometown, even as Israeli troops took control of a five-mile-wide strip of Gaza in an effort to put Israeli towns out of rocket range.

The rocket caused no injuries, but the Israeli incursion into Jebaliya was inflaming passions in a conflict that has killed some 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis in four years.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the security Cabinet that he was determined to stop the rocket fire. "What can we do. The Jews, too, have a right to live," a participant quoted Sharon as saying.

In Washington, the State Department called on Israel to temper its military response to the rocket attack. Israel has a right to defend itself but should limit itself to using "proportional force," deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said.

Palestinian officials voiced outrage. "The Israeli government is continuing to escalate, it is continuing to wreak havoc, it is continuing to destroy all opportunities for peace," said Nabil Abu Rdeineh, a senior aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Arafat's Fatah movement and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant group linked to Fatah, declared Saturday would be a "Day of Rage" that would include a general strike in Gaza. Al Aqsa also issued a separate statement filled with rare, scathing criticism of Arafat's government and lashing out at Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia for traveling abroad during the violence.

The violence could embolden Sharon's opponents within his own party, who insist his planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip would only subject Israelis to further militant attacks.

Sharon wants to pull all Israeli troops and civilians out of Gaza by next year as part of a wider program to unilaterally "disengage" from the Palestinians. But he is keenly aware the rocket attacks could turn Israeli public opinion against the withdrawal and create the impression that Israel was fleeing under attack by Palestinians.

Late Friday, an Israeli aircraft fired missiles at some Palestinian fighters near Jebaliya, killing one Hamas militant and wounding eight people, including five bystanders, witnesses and hospital officials said.

The Israeli military said the group was preparing to launch a rocket and was the sixth cell stopped from firing rockets since the raid began late Wednesday. Witnesses said the men were praying outside a local mosque when the attack occurred.

Also Friday evening, Israeli helicopters fired three missiles at a house owned by an electrician, wounding two people. Residents in the area said the house was also used as a workshop to repair washing machines. The army often fires missiles at workshops, which are used by militants to manufacture the crude rockets.

Amid the violence, the army released video footage taken from an unmanned aircraft showing what appeared to be militants in Gaza loading rockets into a white van, with "U.N." marked in black on its roof.

Israel has often accused militants of using United Nations vehicles and offices to launch attacks. U.N. officials declined to provide immediate comment.