JERUSALEM - The gunfire had finally stopped, according to Palestinians who live in the southern Gaza Strip refugee camp of Khan Younis, and thinking that Israel's incursion was over, they spilled from their tin-roofed homes to survey the damage early yesterday.
Suddenly, they said, a helicopter hovering nearby unleashed a missile that slammed into the crowd, killing 10 people and wounding more than 50. Palestinians said the crowd was all civilians, but an Israeli army commander said it was full of men carrying guns, shooting and hurling grenades at his departing troops.
By nightfall, the death toll from Israel's four-hour operation had climbed to 14, with more than 100 people injured. Army officials said last night that all but one of the dead were armed militants.
Also yesterday, Palestinian apparently turned on Palestinian: Hamas militants were suspected of kidnapping and killing a Palestinian riot police chief in Gaza, who had led a crackdown against bin Laden supporters last year in which two of the supporters were killed.
The Israeli army launched its middle-of-the-night operation in search of Hamas militants and had little room to maneuver in this densely populated city.
"No one could imagine that a pilot would fire a missile at civilian people," said the refugee camp's mayor, Osama al-Farra, who said he was standing 300 yards from where the missile hit. "This is crazy. There are children dead here."
The Israeli army commander said the crowd in front of the Katiba Mosque was dangerous.
"What we saw very clearly was 20 to 25 armed people trying to approach our forces," Brig. Gen. Yisrael Ziff told reporters at a news conference in the Gaza Strip. "We had to shoot to stop it. The strike was definitely at armed people."
A few hours later, as grieving Palestinian relatives swarmed Nasser Hospital and doctors operated on the injured, bullets fired from a nearby Israeli army post raked the building and pierced windows.
Several people inside the hospital were injured, including a 14-year-old boy shot in the neck and a paramedic shot in the chest. The Israeli army said it shot in the direction of the hospital after several mortars were fired at a Jewish settlement from a schoolyard near the hospital.
Army officials defended the overnight incursion into Khan Younis and said civilian casualties were regrettable but unavoidable in urban warfare.
"This operation was necessary," Ziff said. He described al-Amal, the Khan Younis neighborhood that was targeted, as "a very crowded nest of terror and terrorism. ... We wanted to show that there is no safe place in the Gaza Strip."
The general added: "I assume that it cannot be ruled out that in a residential neighborhood with this volume of gunfire, innocent people were also hit. But our forces' fire was relatively accurate. It was directed at armed men, and it hit them. ... There was a lot of very strong and wild shooting."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher couched U.S. criticism of the operation with a restatement of American support for Israel's right to self-defense.
"We're deeply troubled by the reports of Israeli actions in Gaza over the weekend," he said, while adding, "We've always respected Israel's right to defend itself, including going after armed groups and armed men in some of these areas."
United Nations foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who is touring the area trying to encourage negotiations, condemned the attack.
Leaders of the militant group Hamas vowed to avenge the Israeli attack and called Palestinian Authority leaders criminals for urging Hamas to stop suicide bombings and return to nonviolent protests.
"Everyone should know that as our people were not safe in Khan Younis, so Israelis will not be safe in Tel Aviv," Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a senior Hamas leader told reporters in Gaza yesterday. "We will strike everywhere."
Masked Hamas members reportedly shot and killed the Palestinian Authority riot police chief in Gaza yesterday. Riots then broke out when police tried to arrest the suspected gunmen and led to gunfire that left two protesters dead.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials vowed to continue targeting Hamas with military force. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has repeatedly warned in recent weeks that he might order a full-scale movement into the fenced-in Gaza Strip, crowded with about 1.2 million Palestinians and headquarters of the Hamas leadership.
The army said in a brief statement that a bag containing several mortar bombs and a pipe bomb was found during searches, and a suspected militant carrying an explosive device under his coat was arrested. They also said the two most senior Hamas men in the camp were killed.
Palestinian officials said about 40 tanks and other armored vehicles entered the camp firing guns and shells about 1 a.m. The column headed down Jamal Abdul Nasser Street and then split into several directions, surrounding the al-Amal neighborhood.