TEL AVIV, Israel — TEL AVIV, Israel -- Israeli troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships killed eight Palestinians yesterday after surrounding a town in the Gaza Strip and clashing with militants who have made it the prime launching ground for rockets into Israel.
An Israeli soldier was killed and 58 Palestinians were reportedly wounded in the early morning assault on Beit Hanoun, one of the biggest Israeli raids since the summer. The Israeli forces gained control of the town of 37,000 after several hours of fighting and remained there early today, residents said.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said the operation had a "limited objective" to stop the daily firing of crude Kassam rockets into southern Israel. He said it did not mark an escalation of the Gaza campaign or the start of a reoccupation of the strip, from which Israeli troops and settlers were unilaterally withdrawn 14 months ago.
Israel's forces have been entering and withdrawing from Gaza since late June after the capture of an Israeli soldier by gunmen from several armed groups, including the military wing of the governing Hamas movement. The soldier is still missing.
Meeting as yesterday's fighting was under way, Israel's security Cabinet decided to shelve a range of proposals to intensify the four-month-old offensive, including a long-term placement of troops along Gaza's southern border to combat arms smuggling through tunnels from Egypt.
Peretz prevailed over hawkish members of the senior ministers' group after a lengthy debate, according to participants in the meeting.
"There are enough extremists in Israel arguing that if the Palestinians are firing indiscriminately at Israeli towns, then Israel must do the same in its military operations," Peretz said later in an interview at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. "I strongly oppose this."
In yesterday's raid, Israeli tanks surrounded the town and four helicopters flew overhead, firing at suspected militant strongholds but wounding civilians, as well. Hospital officials in Beit Hanoun identified two of the dead as noncombatants - a policeman and a 24-year-old male pedestrian.
An Israeli staff sergeant was wounded in the thigh and bled to death, army officials said. He was the third Israeli soldier to die in the Gaza offensive. More than 260 Palestinians, including militants and noncombatants, have been killed.
Once in control of the town, Israeli soldiers used loudspeakers yesterday to order people to stay indoors, residents said. The Israelis went from house to house looking for ammunition and suspected militants.
"There is no way to resist because the tanks are on every corner," Mahmoud Bayed, a resident of Beit Hanoun, said in a telephone interview from his home.
The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, called the Israeli assault a "despicable" act of "all-out war."
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, whose militant Hamas movement is waging its own bloody feud against Abbas' Fatah party, called the raid a "massacre."
Hamas' military wing issued a statement saying that it has no intention of halting the rocket attacks, which have resulted in relatively few deaths but have kept several Israeli communities on edge.
However, Haniyeh said he hoped the violence would not derail Egyptian-sponsored talks aimed at swapping hundreds of Hamas prisoners for the Israeli soldier captured in late June.
Beit Hanoun lies in the northeast corner of Gaza, less than three miles from Sederot, an Israeli town of 24,000 people. Israeli officials say about 300 of the 800 rockets fired into southern Israel this year were launched from Beit Hanoun.
But Israeli officials worry more about the smuggling of sophisticated weapons into southern Gaza. Government officials want to avoid a repeat of the summer experience in southern Lebanon, where, in the eyes of many Israelis, too little had been done over the years to prevent Hezbollah from building up a lethal arsenal.
Moving into the border zone between Gaza and Egypt last month, Israeli forces closed 15 tunnels that they said were being used to bring in Russian-made Concourse anti-tank missiles, 122 millimeter Grad rockets and more than 15 tons of TNT.
The troops eventually withdrew, but their findings ignited debate within the Israeli government and armed forces over what to do next.
Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.