Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Fierce fighting erupted between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen on Tuesday after Israel launched a massive raid into the Gaza Strip. The raid followed intelligence reports that Palestinians were trying to smuggle long-range rockets into the area, an army spokesperson said.
At least 13 Palestinians were reported killed as a result of helicopter missile strikes and fierce exchanges of fire with Israeli forces. Israeli troops reportedly were moving slowly to avoid ambushes and booby-traps.
Despite international criticism, Israeli troops moved into the Tel Sultan neighborhood of the Rafah refugee camp, reportedly digging a trench to separate it from the rest of Rafah, which is home to some 94,000 Palestinians.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the operation -- dubbed Rainbow -- is open-ended and is geared to prevent the spread of weapons throughout the Gaza Strip.
Weapons are smuggled into Rafah through tunnels that cross under the internationally recognized Israeli-Egyptian border. Those weapons are then distributed throughout Gaza and into the West Bank.
Mofaz said the Palestinians are trying to smuggle even more dangerous weapons into the Gaza Strip.
Describing the situation in Tel Sultan as a "fierce battleground," Israeli army spokesperson Maj. Sharon Feingold said that the goal of the operation is to "combat the terrorist infrastructure in Rafah" -- particularly the tunnels.
That includes the people who operate and dig the tunnels as well as the tunnels themselves and the weapons that have been smuggled through them, she said.
Last week, five Israeli soldiers were killed along the Philadelphi route, when their armored personnel carrier was attacked as they searched for tunnels in the area. Two other soldiers in the area were killed by sniper fire as they stood guard over troops searching for the five soldiers' remains.
But Feingold said the operation in Gaza was not a result of those particular attacks. "We realized that they had managed to smuggle RPG's (rocket propelled grenades). We have to prevent them from smuggling large weapons," she said.
Israel recently received new intelligence information that the Palestinians intended to smuggle "very large caliber, long-range rockets" such as Katuyshas into the Gaza Strip, Feingold said.
"That is the reason and rationale for the operation now," she said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has pledged to remove the 7,800 Israelis who live in communities in the Gaza Strip. But that would put Palestinian militants with long-range rockets within easy reach of Israeli cities, some of which already have been hit by shorter-range, homemade Kassam rockets.
Some analysts say that Israel's current military operation is designed to clean out the terrorists before an Israeli exit from the area.
Israel has destroyed some 90 weapons tunnels over the last few years - eleven of them since the beginning of this year, Israeli officials have said.
According to the Israeli army, smuggling into Rafah began during the 1980s and became a booming business, given the lack of other job opportunities in the city.
Smuggling was not confined to weapons; it included trafficking in drugs and people, and in the beginning the operations were conducted over land. At the same time, Islamic extremism was on the rise in the area.
Rafah, at the southern end of the Gaza Strip, is bordered on the south by the Egyptian border, on the west by the Israeli settlement bloc of Gush Katif, on the east by Israel and to the north by the refugee camp of Khan Younis.
United Nations Relief Works Agency spokesman Paul McCain characterized Rafah as a "very poor town," whose residents are "highly dependent on international aid."
Some of the residents work in agriculture and some in light industry or marketing of trinkets or food, he added.
The tunnels begin on the Egyptian side of the divided city of Rafah and end in homes and buildings in the Rafah refugee area of the Gaza Strip. Some of the tunnels are hundreds of meters long.
In an interview published on the Islam Online website about two years ago, an individual calling himself "Honey" -- described as an "expert" in excavating subterranean passages in the Rafah area -- described how tunnels are dug and arms smuggled.
The tunnels begin with a one-meter-wide pit, 12-14 meters (39-45 feet) deep. Every three meters the tunnel is reinforced with wooden planks, "Honey" said, according to a translation on the Foreign Ministry's website. Sand from the tunnels is removed a little at a time, placed in flour bags and taken to a remote location.
At that time, tunnel construction cost a minimum of $10,000 and it cost at least $300 for each shipment of weapons smuggled.
"If someone is interested in smuggling weapons, he makes a coded request and the workers schedule the date for the smuggling operation. The codes and passwords are transferred via [land-line] phones and cellular phones. The transfer from one side to the other takes between five to ten minutes and is carried out using an engine, which pulls a rope," he said.
An AK-47 rifle costs about $1,000 in Gaza and one rifle bullet costs about $3.
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