| Relatives wait at a hospital morgue in the Gaza town of Najar to identify the victims killed during clashes in Rafah. (AFP)
Rafah (Gaza Strip), May 18 (Reuters): Israel’s army killed 19 Palestinians today in the heaviest raid inside the Gaza Strip for years as tanks and infantry thrust into Rafah refugee camp, a militant stronghold, despite an international outcry.
The assault drew UN and EU condemnation given Israeli threats to destroy hundreds of Palestinian homes there. Thousands of Palestinian houses have been razed since they began a revolt in occupied territory in 2000, UN figures show.
But the army said there were no plans for any systematic demolition during what it called an open-ended operation to stop the smuggling of weapons through tunnels from nearby Egypt.
US President George W. Bush called the Gaza bloodshed “troubling” but, addressing Jewish-Americans in a tight election campaign, told the powerful pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC that Israel “has every right to defend itself from terror”.
A White House spokesman said it was in touch with the Israelis on the humanitarian impact of their incursion and was assured its goal was to stymie smuggling, not level homes.
The 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.
The Rafah hospital morgue became so overloaded today that five bodies were shifted to vegetable freezers in a nearby market for preservation, medics said.
Violence has worsened in Gaza since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed evacuating troops and Jewish settlers in a plan backed by most Israelis and the US, although held up by opposition from hardliners in his Right-wing party.
Militant groups want to claim as a victory any pullout by Israel from territories it captured in the 1967 Middle East war, while the army is determined to smash them first.
Israel had amassed more forces in Gaza than at any time since occupying it 37 years ago, commentators said, for a raid launched after militants killed 13 soldiers there last week — the biggest blow to the army in two years.Before the ground assault, Israeli helicopter gunships killed seven Palestinians, at least three of them gunmen and another a civilian, outside a mosque, witnesses said.
Other Palestinians, including at least one fighter, were shot dead during street battles. A teenage brother and sister were among the dead, killed on the roof as they fed pigeons and hung out washing, residents said.
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat said “a big massacre” had happened in Rafah and called for international intervention to stop Israel’s “military escalation and ugly crimes”.
Army sources said soldiers had fired only at militants, hitting at least 15 of the gunmen.
Troops took vantage points in bullet-pocked buildings of Rafah’s volatile Tel al-Sultan district as soldiers searched house-to-house for militants and battled Palestinian gunmen. Dozens of people were wounded in air attacks and street fighting of “Operation Rainbow”, as the army dubbed it. It said three buildings were demolished today.
Militants fired rockets and set off hidden bombs in the cinderblock camp of 90,000 people, including militant bands who try to ambush soldiers patrolling the Egyptian border. Israel’s army chief General Moshe Yaalon said: “Rafah has become a gateway for terror through which rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons have passed.
“After we tried to persuade the Palestinian authorities to stop this activity, we were forced to prevent this ourselves.” The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees set up tents to take in 1,500 displaced people.
Amnesty International said Israel had destroyed more than 3,000 Palestinian houses during the revolt.