Violent clashes in the Gaza Strip between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen have left at least 15 Palestinians dead and more than 50 wounded.

Fierce firefights erupted in two locations in the Gaza Strip, as Palestinian gunmen engaged Israeli troops in some of the bloodiest fighting in months. The most intense clashes were reported in the Shajaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City in an operation the Israeli military says was aimed at arresting those allegedly responsible for recent rocket attacks on Jewish settlements in Gaza.

The army described the fighting as a true battle zone with the Palestinians attacking the Israeli forces with anti-tank missiles and powerful bombs.

Among the dead were senior Hamas activist Hani Abu Skhaila and Mohammed Helles, the teenaged son of Ahmed Helles, a senior leader of Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction.

In a separate action at the other end of the Gaza Strip, Israeli troops in tanks and armored bulldozers moved into the Rafah refugee camp searching for tunnels used by militants to smuggle weapons across the border from Egypt.

The fighting was the most intense since last October when 14 Palestinians were killed in an Israeli air strike on suspected militants.

On Tuesday, Israel's chief of military intelligence warned that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to remove Jewish settlements from Gaza could encourage terrorism.

Major General Aharon Ze'evi Farkash testified before the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Israeli parliament that terrorist groups would see a pullout as a victory that would motivate them to carry out further attacks on Israel. He predicted that any evacuation would be a catalyst for terrorist groups to increase attacks against West Bank settlements.

Prime Minister Sharon has said he would take unilateral steps if the internationally backed peace plan known as the "road map" remains stalled.

The Sharon disengagement plan calls for the removal of 17 of the 20 settlements in the Gaza Strip. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz says Israeli troops will remain in the Gush Katif block of settlements to serve as a base of operations against Palestinian militants in Gaza. He told the Ha'aretz newspaper the troop presence could be used as a bargaining chip in future negotiations with the Palestinians.

Recent polls show the majority of Israelis favor a unilateral withdrawal of Jewish settlements from Gaza, but pro-settlement political parties warn the Sharon government would fall if the prime minister goes ahead with the plan. Leaders of the National Religious Party and the National Union, two of four parties in the ruling coalition, say they would not be part of a government that approved the settlement removal.