Israeli air strikes in the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza have killed at least 13 Palestinians and wounded 30 others. Israeli ground forces have also moved into the area in an operation that Israel says is aimed at halting arms smuggling from neighboring Egypt and arresting or killing wanted Palestinian militants.
Israeli military helicopters fired missiles into the Rafah refugee camp in two raids.
Israeli tanks and bulldozers also moved into the camp, as soldiers conducted house-to-house searches for Palestinian militants, and some of the troops exchanged fire with Palestinian gunmen.
The head of the Israeli Army, General Moshe Ya'alon, says that at least nine of those killed in the operation were known Palestinian militants. He says Israel has been forced to enter Rafah after it became, in his words, a gateway for terrorism.
The operation has drawn protests from human-rights groups and humanitarian organizations, including the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which handles aid for Palestinian refugees. Spokesman Paul McCann voiced these concerns.
"Well we have said repeatedly that the actions of the Israelis in Rafah are a disproportionate response to the military threat that they face there, that effectively they come to collective punishment of the population," he said.
Mr. McCann says 1,000 Palestinians have been made homeless in recent days due to the destruction of their homes by Israeli forces.
But Israeli Major-General Dan Harel blames Palestinian militants who use residential areas for their operations. And he says Israel is not destroying homes just to expand its security zone along the Gaza-Egypt border, where five Israeli soldiers were killed last week. Israel announced such a plan after the attack, but it received broad international criticism.
"It is said that the terrorists make use of the Palestinian infrastructure to operate from there with no regard for the well-being of the Palestinians in Rafah," he said. "Any structures that were destroyed in the past few days were destroyed only within the context of the bitter battle that was between us and the terrorists fighting us from the Rafah area. No structures were demolished as part of the plan to widen the border road area."
The Israeli Army chief, General Ya'alon, told reporters there are no immediate plans to start mass demolitions of houses in the area to widen the security zone. But his comments did little to ease anger over the operation among Palestinian leaders.
Nabil Abu Rudeinah, a spokesman for the Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat, says the international community should intervene to stop the Israeli military operation.
"This new military escalation is endangering every effort and we urge the Americans to stop this Israeli aggression," said Mr. Rudeinah. "And we are going to demand the [U.N.] Security Council to take an immediate action to stop this escalation. This escalation is dangerous and is going to lead to more violence and instability in the region."
Israel says the operation is designed to prevent the area from being used to smuggle weapons and explosives from Egypt through a network of tunnels, and to prevent the killing of more Israeli soldiers by Palestinian militants operating in the area.
Israeli officials say such operations will remain necessary as long as Palestinian militants continue to use the area to smuggle weapons and explosives across the border from Egypt.