Israeli troops have destroyed hundreds of houses and left thousands of Palestinians homeless in the southern Gaza Strip in operations that far exceeded military security requirements during the past four years, the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch said in a report issued Monday.

Human Rights Watch officials alleged that Israel's excessive use of force against innocent Palestinian civilians in southern Gaza has contributed to outrage across the Muslim world toward Israel and its closest ally, the United States.

"The pattern of destruction strongly suggests that Israeli forces demolished homes wholesale, regardless of whether they posed a specific threat, in violation of international law," Human Rights Watch said in its 133-page report, adding that in most of the cases "the destruction was carried out in the absence of military necessity."

Responding to the report, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, David Saranga, said the government was doing its "utmost to minimize the damage to the civilian populations."

A spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces, Maj. Sharon Feingold, said, "No country in the world would allow their border to be turned into a gateway to terrorism." The threat posed by the tunnels Palestinian militants use to smuggle weapons has become "so concrete and so dangerous" that expansive military operations are needed to find and destroy them, she said.

"The Palestinian Authority is doing absolutely nothing" to stop the arms smuggling or the use of civilians' houses to hide tunnel entrances," Feingold added. "So we will continue to operate there."

According to the United Nations, the Israeli military has destroyed at least 1,686 Palestinian houses in the congested, concrete-block warrens of the Rafah refugee camp and adjacent city of Rafah, which stretch 21/2 miles along the Gaza border with Egypt. Nearly 17,000 people -- about 10 percent of the population of the Rafah communities -- have been left homeless during the last four years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees reports.

The Israeli military says it has destroyed an estimated 100 smuggling tunnels during those operations.

Human Rights Watch wrote that the military "has consistently exaggerated and mischaracterized the threat from . . . tunnels to justify the demolition of homes." The report said many of the tunnels the military includes in its counts are actually tunnel entrances, some of which had already been plugged by Palestinian security forces or were only partially dug out.

The organization also criticized Caterpillar, the U.S. company that sells the massive D9 bulldozers Israel used in most of the home demolitions. The equipment is sold through the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program and fitted with armor plating by an Israeli company.

Caterpillar's public relations office did not respond to e-mail or voice mail messages concerning the report Monday.

Human Rights Watch said that a proposal by military officials to create a 300-yard buffer along 121/2 miles of the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip would also result in the demolition of hundreds of houses.

The housing demolitions in the Rafah area represent about two-thirds of the 2,500 Palestinian houses destroyed by the Israel Defense Forces in operations across the Gaza Strip, according to the U.N. relief organization.

In continuing violence across the strip on Monday, Israeli military forces killed five Palestinian militants, including two who breached a security fence into Israel, two who were killed while allegedly trying to plant a bomb near a Jewish settlement in Gaza, and a militant who was shot near another Jewish settlement, according to militant groups, Palestinian officials and the Israeli military.

Peter Hansen, a U.N. official, listens to Anwar Abu-El Jedyan, pointing, whose house in the Jabalya refugee camp was destroyed in a recent Israeli operation.