Fighting in the camp left at least 11 Palestinians dead and as many as 140 wounded.
The raid on the Jabalya refugee camp began hours after a suicide bomber blew himself up on a bus crowded with high school students on Wednesday, killing at least 15 people and injuring dozens more in the first suicide bombing in Israel in two months. A 14-year-old American girl was among those killed.
Palestinian witnesses and medics told reporters that eight unarmed civilians were killed when an Israeli tank fired toward refugee camp residents crowding around a building set ablaze during the nine-hour incursion.
The Israeli military disputed the claim that it fired on a crowd of bystanders, however, saying that an explosive detonated inside a nearby building was responsible for the deaths. The military does acknowledge that it fired two tank shells during the raid — one early in the incursion and another at a man aiming a rocket powered grenade launcher at troops as they attempted to withdraw from the area.
An Israeli army officer who identified himself as Lt. Col. Moshe told the Associated Press that troops were at a major intersection in the camp when “from inside a store, a very large bomb was detonated at us. It was a very big bomb,” adding that he believed the explosion could have killed some people.
Witness Fadl Nadi told the AP that he noticed two gunmen firing on an Israeli tank near the burning building as firemen attempted to battle the blaze.
“From the direction of the tank, I saw a projectile flying past and … I saw a fireman flying in the air,” Nadi said.
Gaza hospitals were reportedly overwhelmed with the wounded, and Palestinian medical officials said five of the fatalities ranged in age from 13 to 16, according to Reuters.
“God help us, we are running out of medicine, we are running out of blood,” a doctor shouted, according to the news service.
The military said the target of Thursday’s Gaza raid was Abdel Karim Ziada, a member of the Islamic militant group Hamas. Soldiers reportedly found rifles, grenades, explosive devices and anti-tank missile launchers in Ziada’s home, which the troops destroyed after the search.
A senior member of the Hamas group, which has claimed responsibility for a wave of suicide attacks on Israelis, vowed revenge.
“The Jews will pay a dear price,” Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi told Reuters in Gaza.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat condemned the army’s raid, calling it the “Israeli government’s revenge” for the bus bombing in Haifa.
“We hold the Israeli government fully responsible for such acts of revenge,” Erekat said. “We urge President Bush to reshift his focus from war on Iraq to helping the Palestinians and Israelis break this vicious cycle.”
Israeli forces sealed both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in response to the bus bombing and banned most Palestinians from entering Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon likened the ongoing violence to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
“For years the world, including our closest allies, didn’t understand the danger of terror,” Sharon said in Jerusalem. “The terror that attacked the twin towers [Sept. 11] is the same terror that murders school children.”
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Thursday that President Bush was concerned over the deaths of innocent Palestinians in the Israeli raid.
“Israel suffered a terrible attack at the hands of terrorists at Haifa. Israel has a right to defend itself,” Fleischer said. “But the president reminds Israel about [his view that] any actions they take must be done with an eye toward protecting innocent Palestinians.”