Israel launches biggest move into Gaza since 67

tel aviv | If Israel already has one foot out of Gaza, the other appears to be digging in deeper.

This week, Israel had amassed more forces in Gaza than at any time since occupying it 37 years ago, commentators said. The raid launched after Palestinian militants from Gaza killed 13 soldiers there last week — the biggest blow to the army in two years.

Israel Defense Forces said its counterterrorist operations this week were also intended to ferret out terrorists, widen the security zone near the southern Gazan refugee camp of Rafah and uncover arms-smuggling tunnels between Rafah and Egypt.

As of Wednesday, May 19, the operations left more than 35 Palestinians dead, wounded scores of others and leveled numerous Palestinian homes.

The Tuesday, May 18, raid exacted the highest single-day Palestinian death toll — militants and civilians alike — since May 2002 when 23 were killed in an army sweep into the nearby Khan Younis area.

Israel’s maneuvers in Rafah went forward despite international appeals for Israel to back down. Israeli security sources said the raid could last days and was aimed at arms-smuggling militants.

Some Palestinians fled the refugee camp as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the European Union issued condemnations of Israel’s actions, particularly the house demolitions.

In Washington, President Bush declined to condemn the attack on demonstrators, saying he wanted to get “clarification” of the incident from Israeli officials.

“I continue to urge restraint,” Bush told reporters following a Cabinet meeting. “It is essential that people respect innocent life in order for us to achieve peace.”

On Wednesday, May 19, at least eight Palestinians were killed and dozens were wounded when Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships fired missiles and shells toward protesters in Rafah. The strike elicited intense international condemnation.

The IDF said in a statement that it had not targeted the crowd. Military sources said troops had spotted the approaching demonstrators, among them armed men, and asked a helicopter to fire a warning missile at an open field.

The IDF expressed deep sorrow at the incident and offered the Palestinians to transport casualties for treatment in Israeli hospitals.