Backed by combat helicopters, Israeli troops and tanks pushed their way into a Palestinian refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip today, killing at least eight Palestinians and wounding scores of others, hospital officials said.
Separately, at least five Palestinians were reported to have died in the collapse of a weapons-smuggling tunnel close to Gaza's border with Egypt. The frontier area is honeycombed with such subterranean passageways dug by militants to ferry guns, ammunition and high explosives into the coastal strip.
Continuing unrest in Gaza has been causing political headaches for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as he seeks to move ahead with his plan to uproot the Jewish settlements of the seaside strip next year. The prime minister lost his parliamentary majority during infighting over the Gaza withdrawal and has been seeking to shore up his conservative government by allying with the left-leaning Labor Party.
Israeli news reports said today that an agreement had been reached granting Labor eight Cabinet positions in the government, including the job of deputy prime minister for party leader Shimon Peres. A formal coalition agreement was expected to be signed Sunday, Israel's Channel One said.
Sharon's political foes say violence in Gaza underscores the need for Israeli forces to maintain a tight grip on the territory to prevent it from becoming a staging ground for attacks against Israel. Supporters of the withdrawal plan insist that the Mediterranean enclave is a quagmire from which Israelis should extricate themselves as soon as possible.
Although at least five of the eight Palestinians killed in the Israeli incursion into the Khan Younis refugee camp were fighters from militant groups, it was precisely the type of military operation — involving an overwhelming show of force in an area jam-packed with civilians — that Israeli officials had hoped to avoid in the weeks leading up to Palestinian presidential elections on Jan. 9.
The Khan Younis camp, a sprawling enclave of rundown alleyways and concrete-slab buildings, only yards from the Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim, has in recent days been used by Palestinian militants as the launching site for mortar attacks against Jewish settlers.
A young Thai woman working at one settlement was killed in such a barrage earlier this week.
Israeli military officials suggested the operation in Khan Younis was an open-ended one.
"More than 50 mortar shells were fired at Jewish communities in the last week," Col. Ofer Winter, an Israeli army commander in Gaza, told Israel Radio. "This is unacceptable. So long as our residents have no peace, neither shall theirs."
As the Israeli troops moved into the camp, hundreds of panicked Palestinian civilians fled their homes in darkness and freezing temperatures, according to Palestinian officials.
"They shelled our neighborhoods and broke the windows, and then they called us by loudspeaker to leave our homes," said 34-year-old Palestinian mother Lubna Asfour. "We didn't have a chance to take anything with us."
Palestinian hospital officials said at least 40 were wounded during the Israeli incursion, in addition to the eight killed. Three of the fatalities were believed to be civilian bystanders, according to local medics and witnesses.
A spokesman for the Khan Younis municipality, Jamal Abed, said about 600 displaced people had been given shelter at a United Nations school and a hospital.
The Palestinian deaths in a tunnel collapse illustrated the degree to which the militant groups have come to rely on their network of underground cross-border smuggling routes, which often extend for nearly a mile. Technology borrowed from the construction of these pathways for weapons and other smuggled goods has been used over the past year to tunnel near and attack Israeli military outposts as well.
In an unusual step, Israel gave free passage to Palestinian ambulances and rescue crews trying to save those trapped in the collapsed tunnel. In addition to the five killed, up to three others were believed trapped.
On at least one previous occasion, Israeli troops have themselves participated in rescue efforts when a tunnel collapsed amid heavy rains.