JERUSALEM - The Israeli army fought its way deep into the largest and most congested Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip yesterday, killing at least 30 gunmen and civilians in the deadliest fighting in two years.
More than 130 Palestinians were wounded in gunbattles through the night in the Jabalya camp, at the edge of Gaza City. It was the highest single-day casualty total since April 2002 and one of the highest in the Palestinian uprising that ushered in its fifth year this week.
The assault followed a surge in Palestinian rocket fire on Sederot, an Israeli town near Gaza's northern border. Two pre-school children were killed by a Kassam rocket Wednesday, one of about a dozen that hit the town in the past week.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said yesterday that the raid would be a "large-scale and prolonged operation" to establish a buffer zone to effectively push the rockets out of range of Israeli population centers.
Mofaz called the deadly rocket attack Wednesday an "unforgivable and intolerable act." He suggested that army reservists might be called up to help bolster forces fighting in the narrow streets of a camp inhabited by 106,000 people.
Israel Radio reported last night that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had approved plans for the army to reoccupy parts of the northern Gaza Strip, including positions inside the camp. The operation, dubbed "Days of Repentance," could last at least several weeks. The Israeli security Cabinet unanimously approved the plan late last night.
"It's a minimal operation to ensure the safety of Israel's citizens," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon. "It will end only when the threat no longer remains."
Two Israeli soldiers were killed in separate attacks in Gaza yesterday, and a Jewish settler in Gaza was fatally shot while she was jogging.
Israeli military leaders said that nearly all the Palestinians killed yesterday were armed; Palestinian hospital officials said that many of the dead were civilians, three of them children. A Palestinian human rights group said that of the first 15 killed, 10 were gunmen.
The deadliest incident occurred when an Israeli tank fired a shell into a crowd on a street in Jabalya, killing at least seven people, possibly 10.
Israeli army Gen. Dan Harel, the commander of Gaza forces, said at a news conference that the shell had been aimed at militants who had fired an anti-tank shell at an armored vehicle, injuring three soldiers.
He apologized for any civilians who might have been hit, but he accused militants of using passers-by as shields.
Israel's military cut off access to Gaza and closed the main border crossing in the north earlier this week after a news producer for CNN was briefly held captive by Palestinian militants. The closure continued yesterday, preventing reporters in Israel from reaching the fighting.
News crews that did get into Jabalya were already stationed in Gaza. They reported a chaotic, bloody day with medics packing patients and bodies into the same vehicles and crisscrossing the city like taxis as they ferried the wounded to hospitals and then rushed back to the clashes.
Television broadcast gruesome pictures of dismembered bodies and hospital wards overwhelmed with patients. In interviews, doctors said they operated on cafeteria tables or even on floors, as radio broadcasts urged all medical personnel to head to work and urgently requested blood donations.
"We don't have enough room," said Dr. Jamar Saaqa, a spokesman for Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. "We are treating people in the halls." He described hectic scenes of ambulances backed up in the street as frantic doctors sent them to other hospitals in a desperate attempt to save lives.
Masked gunmen shooting into the air crowded around the hospital to collect the remains of fallen comrades before rejoining the battle. The hospital morgue had filled to capacity by midafternoon, and bodies were being stored in other rooms.
"I think this new invasion is for the Israeli army to kill as much as they can," Saaqa said in a telephone interview. "They are killing Palestinian children, women and civilians. They are not killing fighters."
Violence in Gaza has intensified since Sharon announced he wanted to dismantle 21 Jewish settlements and evacuate the 8,100 settlers who live there.
Sharon has vowed not to let leaving Gaza be viewed as a retreat under fire; Palestinians view the pullout as a vindication of their deadly campaign and argue that attacks must continue to ensure an Israeli withdrawal.
A key tool in the arsenal of the militant group Hamas has been the Kassam rocket, a crude weapon about three feet long made from metal pipes and fired from flimsy stands or simply by leaning them against a rock. Improvements have increased their range to about four miles, but they are difficult to aim and until June had not killed any Israelis.