Five militants were killed on Thursday in two seperate incidents as Israel Defense Forces troops moved into a new neighborhood in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on the third day of a large military offensive, witnesses and military sources said.
Palestinian doctors said two militants were killed by IDF tank shells before daybreak Thursday near the Egyptian border in the southern Gaza Strip.
Earlier on Thursday, Palestinian sources reported that three militants were killed by an Israel Air Force helicopter missile near the frontier. Two militants were said injured in the attack. The IDF said the helicopter fired at gunmen approaching Israeli forces.
Soldiers pushed into the Rafah neighborhoods of Brazil and As-Salam, along the border with Egypt, where the army says it is seeking tunnels used by arms smugglers.
"There are now forces in the Brazil neighborhood," said one military source.
Israeli forces destroyed a four-story building in the camp belonging to Islamic Jihad leader Nafez Azzam and a small Islamic sports club, residents said.
A total of 39 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip since "Operation Rainbow" was launched Monday, Israel Radio reported.
Eight Palestinians killed as IDF fires into crowdEight Palestinians were killed and dozens were wounded Wednesday afternoon when IDF tanks fired shells at a crowd of protestors in Rafah refugee camp, in the southern Gaza Strip.
Four of those killed were children under 14. Sixty-two people were wounded and about half of them, in a serious condition were taken to hospitals in Khan Yunis.
Those killed were Walid Abu Khmer, 10, Mubarak Al Hashash, 11, Mahmoud Mansour, 13, Ahmad Abu Said, 14, Rageb Barhoum, 18, Mohamed Abu Sha'ar, 20, Ala'a Sheikh Id, 20, and Fuad A-Saka, 31.
At about 1 P.M. after prayers many Rafah residents gathered in the center of the camp and started marching toward Tel Sultan, which has been under curfew since dawn Tuesday when the army began operating there.
In the morning a truck drove around the town calling on people to join the demonstration in solidarity with the besieged quarter and in protest against Israel's activities. The mosques also called to join the demonstration.
Dozens of children marched at the head of the procession. At about 1:45 P.M. the demonstrators reached Zuarob Square, about 500 meters from the entrance to Tel Sultan. From there the road curves leftward, so that the tanks blocking the entrance to the neighborhood could not be seen.
One demonstrator said the children walked past the curve, and saw the tanks. The adults were just behind them and noticed a movement among the tanks. Further down on the right side of the road, past the shops and houses, there was an open field. At this stage two Israeli helicopters circled overhead. One eyewitness said the helicopters fired something that looked like "white balloons."
When the shelling stopped they started carrying the wounded to the nearest Red Crescent station. All the demonstrators denied that there were any armed men among them.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Wednesday expressed sorrow for the killing of civilians, but insisted that the IDF operation in Rafah was crucial and necessary and would "continue for as long as it remains necessary according to the evaluation of the situation and results achieved in the near future."
Mofaz said that the operation would continue with caution, and lessons will be learnt from the incident. He said that the Israeli government was not being pressured to stop the operation. "We must remember that the area is a central pipeline for transferring weapons to the Strip, which pose a threat and a danger to Israel's residents and IDF troops," he said.
He went on to say that the Rafah strike will be investigated and that it was too early to determine what exactly happened there. "A war is underway here, one of the most difficult and complicated forms of urban warfare, with terrorists taking advantage of the [civilian] population," Mofaz said.
The IDF also expressed deep sorrow at the incident in which innocent people were killed and offered the Palestinians to transport casualties for treatment in Israeli hospitals.
Military sources said that troops had spotted the approaching demonstrators, among them armed men, and asked a helicopter to fire a warning missile at an open field. But when the crowd continued to march, a tank fired three shells at the nearby abandoned building to ward the protesters off.
Senior IDF officers said that if there was indeed a mistake in the firing of the shell, it would be a grave fault that would affect the continuation of the ongoing military operation in the Gaza Strip.
Following the strike, the IDF opened the roads from the area of the Morag settlement to Rafah, in order to allow ambulances to reach the wounded. Rafah was sealed off from the rest of the Strip on Monday, ahead of the current incursion.
Five Palestinians killed in earlier strikeAt least five Palestinians were killed earlier Wednesday in an incident that the IDF said began when militants opened fire on troops carrying out an operation in the southern Gaza town.
Palestinian sources said that there were several other casualties from gunbattles in the area, but that rescue services were having difficulties reaching them due to the gun fire and lack of ambulances.
The IDF on Wednesday morning ordered all males 16 or older in the Rafah neighborhood of Tel Sultan to gather in a local school.
Armed men in the area were instructed to turn themselves in while holding a white flag.
Israel Radio reported that the army had demolished five houses in Rafah on Wednesday, where troops in the Tel Sultan neighborhood conducted house-to-house searches for armed Palestinian militants.
At least 20 Palestinians, including 14 armed men, were killed Tuesday in the operation, which the army said was intended to find weapons and arrest the smugglers and tunneling experts who build the conduits for weapons that make their way from the Egyptian side of the border to the Gaza Strip.