Israeli forces have pulled out of a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip following two days of violent clashes with armed militants that left nine Palestinians dead. The Israeli army says the operation succeeded in uncovering at least one of a network of secret tunnels used to smuggle weapons and explosives from Egypt into Gaza.
Israeli forces pulled out of the Palestinian refugee camp in Rafah near the southern border with Egypt early Wednesday.
Palestinian witnesses say that the troops left in their wake extensive damage to water and power systems, and piles of rubble from demolished homes.
During the fierce fighting with Palestinian militants, the Israeli forces blew up and bulldozed some buildings in search of weapons smuggling tunnels.
Israeli Army spokesman Captain Jacob Dallal says the troops found one tunnel, 13 meters deep, hidden under a three-story residential building.
He says this is clear evidence that "Palestinian terrorists," as he called them, are putting the lives of ordinary civilians at risk. "We make every effort to be as careful as possible with regard to civilian casualties," stressed Captain Dallal. "Obviously, the terrorists choose to dig the tunnels inside a residential building in this case, knowing how careful we are and knowing how hard it is for us to operate in such areas."
Captain Dallal says that, if necessary, the troops will return to destroy other tunnels and to wipe out what he called the "Palestinian terrorist infrastructure."
"The weapons come from the Egyptian side of the border through the tunnels to the Gaza side of the border at Rafah," said the army spokesman. "Without these weapons the terrorists will go dry in terms of their ability to carry out serious attacks."
The Palestinian Minister for Negotiations, Saeb Erekat, rejected the Israeli Army's claim that the raid had been justified.
He says that the Israeli military actions are undermining efforts to restart peace talks, starting with a possible summit between the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, and his Palestinian counterpart, Ahmed Qureia.
In what appeared to be defiant response to the raid, Palestinian militants fired homemade Kassam rockets at a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, wounding two people.
Another rocket was fired from the Gaza Strip at the town of Sderot inside Israel, landing near a building but causing no injuries.