JERUSALEM – Israeli troops thrust into a crowded Palestinian refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on Thursday, as fresh violence claimed at least 27 Palestinians and three Israelis – one of the highest single-day death tolls during four years of conflict.
At least 100 Palestinians were injured during the clashes, according to Palestinian hospital officials.
Most of the fatalities came as Israel carried out a rare incursion inside the Jabaliya refugee camp, a densely populated neighborhood of 100,000 people that is a hotbed for Palestinian militant activities. Israel generally has limited its military actions to the outskirts to avoid combat in cramped quarters.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz announced that the operation – aimed at ending rocket attacks against Israelis – would be prolonged, raising the prospect of continued clashes. The assault won the approval of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his security Cabinet.
In Thursday’s violence, at least seven Palestinians were reportedly killed by an Israeli tank shell near a crowded market in the camp. A Palestinian ambulance driver said the victims were bystanders killed when the tank opened fire on about 25 people who clustered near a school where Israeli forces were gathered. At least 15 others were injured, according to hospital officials.
Israeli military sources said the tank returned fire after Palestinian fighters launched an antitank missile from the market area and hurled a separate bomb that injured three soldiers. The tank shell appeared to have hit the fighters, but it was not clear from a preliminary investigation whether civilians were struck, the sources said.
Thursday’s fighting came on the second full day of an Israeli military sweep to prevent Palestinian fighters from firing Kassam rockets – improvised weapons that fall almost daily on Israeli targets within and near the Gaza Strip, although often without hitting anything.
One of the rockets struck the Israeli town of Sderot on Wednesday, killing two children, ages 2 and 4, and wounding more than two dozen other people as Israel was preparing to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
After that incident, Sharon ordered Israeli commanders to take steps to prevent further attacks, including seizing control of a broader swath of land inside the Gaza Strip to push the rockets out of range of targets inside Israel.
Sharon was at his private Sycamore Ranch a few miles from Sderot when the Wednesday attack took place. After the assault, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said it was time for Israel to take action against Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Gideon Ezra, the acting public security minister, said Israel should clamp down in Gaza with sufficient force to encourage Palestinian civilians to spurn fighters in their midst.
A series of recent Israeli military operations, some of them lasting for weeks, has failed to stop the rocket attacks. A mortar attack last week killed an Israeli woman in the Neve Dekalim settlement in the southern Gaza Strip.
“We will continue this operation until we are absolutely certain that the firing of these rockets against innocent civilians will stop,” Raanan Gissin, a Sharon spokesman, said Thursday of the ongoing incursion.
Palestinian officials called upon the United States, Russia, the United Nations and European governments to press Sharon to stop the operation, which they said cast doubt on Israel’s stated plans to pull settlers and troops out of Gaza by late next year.
“This is a dangerous military escalation – craziness,” said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian Cabinet member. “This is destroying Gaza. This is preparation to reoccupy Gaza, not to evacuate Gaza.”
Thursday’s fighting was described as fierce, and witnesses reported the sounds of steady shooting and tank fire. Israeli forces destroyed about 50 homes as they entered the camp, just north of Gaza City, Palestinian officials said. Israeli officials said some buildings were damaged, but as a result of roadside bombs aimed against the advancing troops.
Palestinian hospital officials said that at least five children under age 14 were among the dead.