JERUSALEM— Israeli helicopters pounded the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip with missiles and machine-gun fire yesterday, killing at least 20 Palestinians as troops broke into houses in a major military offensive that drew global condemnation.
The United States said it was seeking clarification from Israel about the operation which officials said would last at least a week. The European Union sent a senior envoy for talks with Israeli leaders.
The army said most of those killed were armed. Palestinians said eight civilians were among the dead, including a brother and sister, aged 13 and 16 , who were killed by shots from a nearby army position while taking down laundry from a rooftop.
Trapped Rafah residents huddled in the innermost rooms of their homes as bullets rained outside. Other residents tried to flee to safer ground. Since the weekend, thousands of Rafah residents have left their homes. At least 42 Palestinians were wounded, including 12 who were in serious condition.
“The duration of the operation will depend on assessments of the situation and operational achievements over the coming days,” said Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.
Under cover of darkness, troops fanned out into Rafah’s Tel Al-Sultan neighborhood, taking vantage points in bullet-pocked buildings as soldiers searched house-to-house for fighters.
“We are afraid,” said Miriam Abu Jazzar, surveying the blood-stained ruins of her daughter’s home, smashed by a missile. “Every hour there is shooting.”
Before the assault, helicopter gunships killed seven Palestinians, at least three of them fighters, outside a mosque.
Complaining that ambulances were unable to reach them, camp dwellers laid one corpse in a freezer to keep it from the heat. Troops demolished four houses in Tel Sultan. In all, more than 11, 000 Palestinians in Rafah have been made homeless by Israeli demolitions since the outbreak of intifada in 2000 .
Palestinian ambulance drivers reported coming under fire, and Dr. Moawiya Hassanain, a senior Palestinian Health Ministry official, said several ambulances were pinned down in the area of fighting, unable to evacuate the wounded to hospital.
Dr. Wael Burdeini said medical staff and ambulances could not leave a clinic in Tel Sultan because of heavy shooting in the area, and tank and an army bulldozer parked outside. The Israeli Army chief, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, said the aim of “Operation Rainbow” was to destroy arms-smuggling tunnels. He said homes would only be demolished if gunmen used them as firing positions or to cover up tunnels.
Arab states asked for a special session of the UN Security Council about the situation in Gaza, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan denounced the Israeli operation. Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League, described Israeli actions in Rafah and Gaza as “war crimes.”
Jordan called on Israel to stop its assault and return to negotiations with the Palestinians.
Criticizing Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said even if tunnels were found, there was no need to destroy the houses.
European Union foreign policy representative Javier Solana said the destruction of homes “goes very much against the letter and the spirit of the road map” plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. An EU envoy, Marc Otte, was in Israel for talks with Israeli leaders, carrying a message of “unequivocal condemnation,” his aides said.
Courtesy News Watcher