Israeli military forces on Friday night ended an assault in the northern Gaza Strip that lasted 17 days and killed 114 Palestinians. Five Israelis and one Thai laborer were also killed.
Israeli military officials described the large-scale operation in two populous towns and a refugee camp in northern Gaza as a success but conceded it had not stopped Palestinians from firing the crude Qassam rockets targeted by the Israeli forces.
"We dealt them a big blow," said Capt. Jacob Dallal, a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces. "That does not mean we got the last Qassam, but their ability to fire consistently and accurately has been greatly impaired, so the mission has been effectively accomplished."
International aid and human rights organizations criticized Israel for the operation, in which 60-ton Merkava tanks, AH-64 Apache helicopters and unmanned aerial drones fired into the congested warrens of the Jabalya refugee camp and the nearby towns of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun.
Images of the attacks broadcast by Arab satellite networks, often in tandem with footage of the continuing violence in Iraq, further stoked anti-Israeli and anti-American passions in the region.
Israeli military forces and Palestinian militants have increased attacks in recent months as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has pushed a proposal to withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip beginning next summer. Pro-settler political groups have accused Sharon of handing militants a victory by saying he would evacuate settlements in Gaza.
Israeli military officials said a limited number of forces and tanks would probably remain in northern Gaza on the outskirts of Beit Lahiya, Beit Hanoun and the refugee camp. Friday's withdrawal occurred as Muslims began observing the holy month of Ramadan, a period of prayer and daytime fasting.
"When we are satisfied there are no more Qassam rockets and we can proceed with the disengagement plan without major conflagrations, we are going to pull back," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon. "But we are going to stay as long as there's fire."
About midnight on Sept. 27, the Israeli military began a major incursion into Gaza in an effort to curb Palestinians from firing Qassams, rockets fashioned from sewer and construction pipes, into Israel. The next night a Qassam landed in the town of Sderot, killing two children.
Among the 114 Palestinians killed in the attacks during the past 17 days, 29 were children and teenagers, and many of the adults were civilians, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.
Dallal, the Israeli military spokesman, said Israel did not provide a breakdown of the number of Palestinian militants or civilians killed, but he described the intended targets.
"We had 15 incidents in which we targeted gunmen," Dallal said, "12 in which we targeted people laying explosive devices, and eight in which we targeted cells firing RPGs," or rocket-propelled grenades.
Israeli tanks and bulldozers flattened an estimated 95 houses, chewed up several miles of asphalt roads and agricultural tracks and destroyed more than 260 acres of olive and citrus groves and strawberry fields, according to a report compiled by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Israeli military officials said houses and agricultural areas were bulldozed as part of an effort to destroy hiding places used by Palestinians to fire rockets into Israeli towns across the Gaza border.
Palestinian militants fired 14 Qassam rockets into Israel while armored forces were conducting their assaults, including one that landed near the town of Sderot just two days ago, Israeli military officials said.
Correspondent John Ward Anderson contributed to this report.