The raid began at midnight Thursday and could continue for days, the Associated Press reported. The increased military activity comes in response to last weekend’s suicide bombing that killed 20 civilians in a Haifa restaurant.
Witnesses said more than 60 tanks entered the Rafah refugee camp, located along the border with Egypt in the southernmost area of the Gaza Strip.
Israeli officials said they had intelligence that Palestinians were planning to use tunnels to smuggle in anti-aircraft missiles, according to the AP.
Dore Gold, a government spokesman, said Israel has to pursue militant groups and their infrastructure because Palestinians were not.
“In uncovering the vast network of arms smuggling tunnels in the area of Rafah, Israel is compelled again to do the work that the Palestinian Authority is supposed to do,” Gold said.
Military officials said tunnels within the Rafah refugee camp are used to smuggle illegal weapons, drugs and prostitutes into Gaza.
According to the military’s statement, since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, more than 70 weapon-smuggling tunnels have been discovered in Rafah, 33 smuggling tunnels had been destroyed so far this year, and two more were found Friday afternoon.
Among the Palestinians killed in Friday’s gunfights was an 8-year-old boy. A helicopter fired a missile at a crowd, which caused many of the casualties. Military officials, however, said the missile targeted a group of gunmen resisting the operation.
One Israeli soldier was wounded.
Najar Hospital ran out of medicine and supplies for all the victims, but Israeli travel restrictions prevented patients from being transferred to other hospitals, the AP reported.
During the heightened violence, Palestinian officials were dealing with internal conflicts over leadership within the Palestinian Authority. Lawmakers had postponed a vote to approve Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei’s Cabinet.
Qurei told Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat he would rather not keep his job, but he did not formally resign.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said the dispute undermines Palestinian efforts to form a new government at a critical moment.
“We don’t look good. At a time when the Palestinian people are suffering, the last thing we need is an internal crisis,” Erekat said.
He added that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is taking advantage of the situation. “He’s using this, saying, ‘If they can’t get their act together, let me get my act together through guns and tanks.'”
Palestinians officials have had to answer many questions concerning Arafat’s health after the Palestinian president appeared outside his besieged compound looking frail and sickly. The officials said he is not seriously ill, but had a stomach flu.