GAZA CITY -- Israeli troops seized a northern Gaza town yesterday in one of the largest strikes against Palestinian rocket squads in months, imposing a curfew, deploying snipers on rooftops, and patrolling streets in tanks. Eight Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed.
Cabinet ministers scrapped a plan to widen the conflict, however, a move that coincided with US and Egyptian efforts to stanch the flow of weapons to Palestinian extremists across the Gaza-Egypt border.
The takeover of Beit Hanoun was expected to last only a few days, according to Israeli officials, who emphasized the operation was not the start of a broader military offensive in Gaza. One plan for such a major operation would involve seizing large portions of southern Gaza to destroy weapons smuggling tunnels from Egypt.
Israel has several reasons not to launch such an offensive now.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is to meet with President Bush at the White House this month, and probably would not want a major escalation in Gaza to overshadow the trip.
A wider offensive could also harm negotiations for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped June 25 by Hamas-allied militants, and attempts by the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to form a new Palestinian government acceptable to the West.
An escalation could also hinder US efforts to improve security and cut down on smuggling at the Egypt-Gaza border.
John Negroponte, US director of national intelligence, met yesterday in Cairo with his Egyptian counterpart, Omar Suleiman. Arab diplomats said Negroponte proposed that Egypt allow a US-led team of multinational peace monitors to help police the border with Gaza.
He also proposed that CIA counterterrorism specialists assist in efforts to halt cross-border smuggling, said the diplomats, who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The takeover of Beit Hanoun was the latest in a series of Israeli incursions into Gaza, first launched after Shalit's capture. Such raids are aimed both at pressuring Hamas to release the soldier and at trying to halt rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli border towns, so far to no avail.
After midnight, dozens of tanks and bulldozers rolled into the town of 50,000 from two directions. By nightfall yesterday, Israeli troops controlled most of Beit Hanoun, enforcing a curfew in some areas and patrolling the streets with tanks. Attack helicopters fired machine guns and missiles at groups of militants. Snipers took up rooftop positions and troops set up a makeshift base near an agricultural school. Bulldozers leveled some farming areas, residents said.
Throughout the day, dozens of Palestinian gunmen exchanged fire with the Israeli forces.
Eight Palestinians were killed, including five militants and a policeman, Palestinian doctors said. At least 61 people were wounded, four critically, hospital officials said. Most of the wounded were gunmen, but they also included a woman and an 11-year-old boy, doctors said.
Dr. Jamil Suleiman, director of the Beit Hanoun hospital, said all of the hospital's blood supplies had been used up.
An Israeli soldier also was killed.
The army described yesterday's operation as one of the largest in Gaza since the campaign began in late June.
Captain Avital Leibovitz, a military spokeswoman, said Beit Hanoun was targeted, because 300 rockets had been fired from the town since the beginning of the year, out of 800 launched from Gaza.
She described the operation in Beit Hanoun as a pinpoint strike, and not a jumping-off point for a broader military campaign in Gaza.
Israel's Security Cabinet, a group of senior ministers, rejected proposals yesterday for a major escalation against rocket squads and arms-smuggling operations along the Egypt-Gaza border.
"We have no intention of being dragged into any operation," said Defense Minister Amir Peretz, adding that the army would stick to pinpoint raids with defined goals and would not conduct what he called "showcase operations."
Abbas condemned the Israeli operation in Beit Hanoun and urged the international community to take action to halt it.
Hamas government spokesman Ghazi Hamad accused Israel of deliberately keeping Gaza mired in chaos to give itself "a green light in order to continue aggression against our people."
Even as the offensive in Beit Hanoun continued, eight rockets from Gaza landed in Israel, the army said. No one was seriously injured. The Hamas military wing said it had no intention of stopping the rocket attacks.
A spokesman for the Hamas military wing, Abu Obeidah, advised residents of Sderot, a town that has often come under rocket fire, to flee. "Staying there is going to put their lives in danger," he said.