Six Israeli soldiers and six Palestinians have been killed in a day of fierce fighting in Gaza City. Israeli troop reinforcements have been sent to the area to restore security and retrieve the body parts of the soldiers killed in a roadside bomb blast. Amid the fighting in Gaza, a senior Israeli official said there is no choice but to evacuate all Jewish settlers from the territory.
The Israeli soldiers were killed during an operation to find and destroy factories making rockets and other weapons in a neighborhood of Gaza City.
A roadside bomb exploded as their explosives-laded armored vehicle passed by. The militant group Hamas, which is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations, claimed responsibility for the blast, saying it had used an anti-tank missile to force the vehicle into an area where it had previously planted bombs.
Hamas claims to have filmed the deadly ambush, which is believed to have accounted for the highest death toll of Israeli soldiers in a single operation in nearly 18 months. Israeli troop reinforcements were sent to the area and conducted house-to-house searches for the remains of the soldiers after Hamas said it was holding on to the body parts.
At least five Palestinians were reported killed as battles raged between soldiers and Palestinian gunmen throughout the day. More than 100 others were wounded.
A sixth Palestinian, reportedly a teenage boy, was killed and several others wounded when an Israeli military helicopter fired missiles at a car near the battle scene.
Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, who says he wants to remove all Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip, is due to convene a meeting of his security Cabinet to decide on possible further military action.
Amid the fighting, Israel's Deputy Premier, Ehud Olmert, told a conference of visiting mayors in Jerusalem that all settlers will have to be evacuated from Gaza.
"There is no way that we can keep them [the settlers] living in a relaxed atmosphere without terror at any time in the future," he said. "They are destined to leave in this atmosphere of terror and almost endless confrontation."
Mr. Olmert says he is convinced that Prime Minister Sharon will press ahead with the idea despite the rejection of his disengagement plan in a referendum of the ruling Likud Party, one-week ago.
"Prime Minister Sharon is a very courageous guy and I am sure that he will push through, in spite of the difficulties, in spite of the resistance, in spite of the certain opposition, because the majority of people in Israel, by the way, will support it," said Mr. Olmert.
His comments follow those of the Israeli Defense Minister, Shaul Mofaz, who this week described the settlements in the Gaza Strip as an historical mistake.
Mr. Mofaz predicted that with or without a peace agreement with the Palestinians there would no longer be any settlers living in the territory within five years.