RAFAH, Gaza Strip - Israeli forces fired a missile and tank shells toward a large crowd of Palestinian demonstrators in the Rafah refugee camp yesterday in an attack that witnesses said killed at least eight people and injured dozens more.
Four other Palestinians were reported killed in separate fighting, pushing the Palestinians' two-day death toll in Gaza to more than 30. The offensive, which Israel said it launched Tuesday to staunch weapons smuggling along Gaza's border with Egypt, has triggered the bloodiest bout of urban warfare here in more than 3 1/2 years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The assault yesterday followed the bulldozing of dozens of Palestinian houses along an Israeli patrol road, an operation that has rendered about 1,600 Palestinians homeless.
Critics say Israel's intensive military operations with battlefield weaponry - including tanks, heavy machine guns and combat helicopters - endanger civilians inside densely populated Palestinian areas.
Later in the evening, Israeli helicopters fired two more missiles in the crowded refugee camp. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Palestinian eyewitnesses said the first set of Israeli strikes appeared to set off at least one explosion among the throngs of marchers protesting Israel's offensive in Rafah. Chaos ensued as people in the crowd, some of them wounded and bleeding, rushed to carry away the most severely injured, including screaming children.
"First the tanks shot toward us, and then the helicopters approached and circled over our heads, and there was a big boom," said Ahmed Naim Zarab, a 15-year-old protester who was wounded in the leg. "I saw that I was hurt, and so many others, too."
The deaths prompted calls for an immediate halt to the Israeli offensive, which came on the heels of Israel's worst combat losses in Gaza since the start of the conflict. Thirteen Israeli soldiers were killed in three separate incidents last week, two of them in Rafah.
At the United Nations, the United States took a rare step of abstaining from a Security Council resolution critical of Israel. In a 14-0 vote, the council condemned the killing of Palestinian civilians. It also called on Israel to halt its bulldozing of Palestinian homes, which in the past week has thrown some 1,600 people out of their homes.
"We deeply regret the loss of life of innocent Palestinian civilians today in Gaza," said the deputy U.S. ambassador, James B. Cunningham, after the vote. Israel's operations in Gaza "have worsened the humanitarian situation and resulted in confrontation between Israeli forces and Palestinians - and have not, we believe, enhanced Israel's security."
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - speaking at an ceremony commemorating Israel's seizure of east Jerusalem, including the walled Old City, in the 1967 Middle East War - did not directly allude to the fighting in Gaza. But he pledged to battle those "who harbor ill intent against Jerusalem and its people."
The latest Israeli assault comes as Sharon is revising his plan to withdraw Jewish settlers from Gaza. Last week, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that the army could destroy Palestinian buildings near an Israeli patrol road that runs along the Gaza-Egyptian frontier if military commanders deemed the demolitions necessary for security reasons.
Even some of Sharon's coalition allies openly criticized the offensive in Rafah. "This is a mistake and a human and diplomatic tragedy," said Justice Minister Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, whose Shinui party is a partner in Sharon's governing coalition. "This incident has `This cannot continue' written all over it."
Palestinians called the violence in Gaza a disproportionate response to the threat posed by militants operating in the area. Israel has said its operations in Rafah are meant to shut down what officials call a "gateway of terror" - weapons-smuggling tunnels that run beneath the Egyptian border.
Palestinians, who have had high-level contacts with Bush administration officials in recent days, reacted to the Gaza developments with fury.
"The only question is whether the international community is going to do something to protect the Palestinians from this kind of indiscriminate killings," said Palestinian Cabinet minister Ghassan Khatib.
The attack took place in Tel Sultan, a neighborhood outlying the Rafah refugee camp. Israelis had moved into the area in full force more than 24 hours earlier, cutting it off from the central districts of the Rafah camp.
Yesterday, trails of blood, together with dangling electrical wires, marked the scene of the deaths and injuries at a sand-strewn intersection called the Zaurob Crossing.
"I saw hands and severed legs on the ground," said 28-year-old Palestinian worker Khalid Mahmoud Hijazi, who took part in the demonstration. "We were putting the injured on donkey carts because the ambulances could not get through."