Israel has launched a massive military operation in the southern Gaza strip aimed at stopping alleged arms smuggling from Egypt and attacks by Palestinian militants. Israel says troops are under orders to seal off the town of Rafah, which it claims is a major base of support for armed Palestinian groups, from the rest of Gaza.

Israeli soldiers, among the hundreds deployed in southern Gaza, have clashed with armed Palestinians. Israel said its troops opened fire after Palestinian militants attacked them with anti-tank missiles. The Palestinian militants launched the attacks in an attempt to drive back the Israelis forces, which include armored, engineering and infantry units, backed by tanks, bulldozers, and helicopter gunships.

The forces entered Rafah early Monday, and some units began tearing up roads around the town. Thousands of Palestinians are reported to be fleeing the area amid fears that Israeli soldiers will demolish their homes in a refugee camp.

The Israeli troops were told to destroy what Israel calls the terrorist infrastructure in the town, including a network of tunnels used to smuggle weapons and explosives from neighboring Egypt.

The operation follows a decision of the Israeli cabinet on Sunday to step up military operations, following the killing of seven soldiers in the area last week. Six other soldiers were killed in the Gaza Strip. The fighting also killed at least 32 Palestinians throughout Gaza.

An organization of Israeli mothers has been formed to urge the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to go ahead with his unilateral plan to withdraw from the territory.

Dorit Eldar, a spokeswoman for Shuvi - meaning Come Back - explains the group's position.

?Since we are going to get out of Gaza eventually, and everybody knows this is going to happen, the sooner that happens - the better,? Ms. Eldar said. ?And we really do not have the lives to spare. We do not have the blood to spare, if you will excuse me, neither of soldiers nor of citizens. That is why we came to call for a quick withdrawal from Gaza.?

Yuli Edelstein, a member of Mr. Sharon's Likud party in the Israeli parliament, rejects the argument that less soldiers would be killed if Israel withdraws from Gaza.

?I think if it were not for some military presence that we still have in the area of the Gaza Strip, there would be more casualties God forbid. Because the terrorists would have the possibility to get themselves much better prepared for any Israeli attack. And no one really believes that with or without disengagement we would be able to totally stop fighting terrorism, to totally stop attacking terrorist bases [in Gaza],? he said.

Mr. Edelstein voted with a majority of Likud members in a referendum of the party earlier this month against Mr. Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.