RAFAH, Gaza Strip – Heavy fighting raged in this refugee camp Friday, killing two Israeli soldiers and a Palestinian man and trapping frightened residents in their homes, the army and witnesses said.
Troops seized several houses and army bulldozers knocked down at least 35 buildings on the edge of the camp, trying to secure the area for soldiers searching for the remains of five others killed there in a blast earlier in the week.
Military officials said that once this search was over, the army could launch a wide-scale move to expand a military patrol road between the camp and the Egyptian border – a move that would see hundreds of houses in Rafah flattened.
During Friday’s clashes, gunmen moved through the narrow alleys of the camp, firing homemade rockets and rifles at the troops. The Israelis responded with missiles launched from helicopter gunships and heavy machine gun fire.
One soldier was shot as he escorted a Palestinian women into a house troops had commandeered, the army said. A force who tried to evacuate him was hit by sniper fire that killed another soldier and wounded two others, the army said.
The militant Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for the shooting.
On the Palestinian side, one man was killed in a missile strike and a second when an explosive device blew up prematurely. Eight Palestinians were wounded, two of them seriously.
Also, three Palestinians were buried under the rubble of their destroyed house, witnesses said. Rescue workers said they were unable to reach the site and an ambulance came under fire.
The military said there were armed men in the house and that it had been destroyed in heavy exchanges of fire.
Residents were trapped in their homes by the heavy fighting. Hisham Mohammed, 35, said he was stuck on the third floor of his apartment building with the rest of his family on the ground floor. “I am not able to go downstairs because bullets tore a big gap in the wall near the stairs,” he said.
Palestinian security officials said that by the end of the day 35 buildings were destroyed close to the patrol road that runs between Rafah and the Egyptian border. On that road, an armored personnel carrier transporting a ton of explosives was blown up by a homemade rocket Wednesday, killing five soldiers.
In the wake of the deadly attack military officials said the army wants to widen the six-mile patrol road, a move that would destroy hundreds of homes that border the road. “It is something we are definitely considering,” the official said.
One plan under discussion is the construction of a giant trench along the road, another official said.
Since the outbreak of fighting in September 2000, the Israeli military has razed 1,026 houses in Rafah and damaged 767, according to local officials. The destruction has left more than 10,000 Palestinians homeless.
Israel does not confirm those numbers, but says houses were targeted because they provided cover for gunmen or for weapons smuggling tunnels. In the past three years, Israeli troops have uncovered 80 tunnels running between Egypt and Rafah, the army said.
As armored bulldozers descended on their homes Friday, frantic residents waved white flags, removed valuables in cartons and plastic bags, and carted away furniture, doors and window frames.
The latest violence – a total of 13 soldiers have died in Gaza this week — has triggered hot debate over Israel’s presence in the area, which is home to 7,500 Jewish settlers and 1.3 million Palestinians.
A poll published Friday in the Yediot Ahronot daily showed a sharp rise in support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Voters in Sharon’s Likud Party vetoed the proposal earlier this month, despite wide public backing for the plan.
The Gaza fighting has claimed the lives of 29 Palestinians since Tuesday and about 250 have been wounded.