KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip, Reuters
In a marked military escalation, Israeli forces killed two Palestinians and wounded 25 on Wednesday in a tank-led assault on a refugee camp from where gunmen had fired on nearby Jewish settlements.
An Israeli military official said it was the largest Israeli force to go into a Palestinian-ruled area since the start of the present Palestinian uprising last September.
United Nations special envoy to the Middle East Terje Roed- Larsen cautioned that more bloodshed was ahead and said military moves were no answer.
“Only political measures can stop the current cycle of violence which is now threatening to spin out of control,” Larsen told Reuters in an interview.
The army said it entered Khan Younis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip to demolish homes and an olive grove which gunmen had used for cover to fire on Jewish settlements and soldiers.
Witnesses said soldiers, led by two tanks, thrust some 350 meters into the camp shortly after midnight when most camp residents were asleep.
They used bulldozers to remove sand embankments and demolish homes which the army believed were used by gunmen to fire mortar bombs at a nearby Israeli army base and Jewish settlements.
At least 25 homes were completely leveled in the attack which went on for about five hours before Israeli forces withdrew. About a dozen other homes bore the scars of the battle with their walls chipped by heavy machine gun bullets.
Broken television sets, washing machines and refrigerators jutted from the rubble of crudely built mud and cement homes.
Fatima Abulowz, 30, sat on a mattress outside her destroyed home with her 15-month-old daughter in her arms.
“This all I have left,” she said pointing to the rubble. “All my belongings, my money, my jewelry is buried in there.”
The Israeli attack was met by hundreds of Palestinian civilian gunmen and national security forces who rushed from their homes as the alarm spread.
The camp’s power was knocked out, cloaking the clash in nearly total darkness.
Palestinian hospital sources said the two dead were a Palestinian policeman, 50, and a 25-year-old civilian.
Chanting “revenge, revenge”, hundreds attended the funeral of the victims.
The army said “Operation Enjoyable Song”, was part of a continuous effort to hit “sources responsible for terror”.
The scale of the attack, following Tuesday’s first daytime missile strikes for months against Palestinian police posts in the Gaza Strip, marked a sharp escalation by Israeli forces in their bid to stamp out firing on Jewish settlements.
It appeared to be part of right-wing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s vow to use all necessary security measures to end the violence before moving on to peace talks.
In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz to be published on Friday, Sharon said his plan was to keep gunmen guessing about where Israeli forces would strike next.
“The goal of the plan is to place the terrorists in varying situations every day and to unbalance them so that they will be busy protecting themselves. In this government we do not threaten, we act,” Sharon said in the interview.
At least 374 Palestinians, 13 Israeli Arabs and 71 other Israelis have been killed in the violence that erupted after peace talks deadlocked.