RAFAH, Gaza Strip -- Israeli tanks and bulldozers moved into a Gaza refugee camp this morning, hours after panicked residents fled amid fears of an incursion. Helicopters fired missiles at the camp, killing at least 11 and wounding 30, residents said.
As the bulk of Israeli forces deployed around the shantytown in preparation for a major operation, bulldozers and troops moved into an area known as the Tel Sultan neighborhood, digging a trench to separate it from the rest of the camp, witnesses said. Soldiers backed by dozens of military vehicles searched house to house.
The moves appeared to start a major effort to widen a military patrol road between Rafah and the Egyptian border to stop arms smuggling, arrest militants, and widen a buffer zone. The decision was made after Palestinians blew up an armored vehicle there last week, killing five soldiers assigned to destroy arms-smuggling tunnels.
The gunships attacked twice after midnight. Palestinians said that around dawn, two missiles killed at least eight people as they left a mosque following prayers. They said 23 others were wounded and part of the mosque was set on fire. Hamas said three of the dead were members of the militant group.
A few hours earlier, a helicopter fired three missiles, killing three people and wounding seven. Doctors said at least two of the dead were militants.
The Israeli military said both airstrikes were aimed at groups of armed militants.
A few hours earlier, a helicopter fired three missiles at the surrounded refugee camp, killing three people and wounding seven, Palestinians said. Hospital officials said at least two of the dead were gunmen, but the wounded were civilians.
The Israeli military said the target was a group of armed Palestinians approaching Israeli forces. Israel Radio has reported that troops were prepared to fight from house to house in the camp.
Frantic residents loaded belongings onto trucks and donkey carts yesterday and headed to the neighboring town, also named Rafah. The UN Relief and Works Agency set up shelters in schools and pitched a tent camp.
Women balanced mattresses on their heads, children carried blankets, and men carted away sofas. One man lowered a cooking gas container by rope from a second-floor window, and another piled firewood onto a horse cart.
Raouf Abu Jazar said dozens crowded his store, stocking up on rice, bottled water, and baby food. ''Many had no money to pay, but I gave them what they want, because we all are brothers," he said.
Last week, Israeli troops destroyed about 100 houses in the camp, and officials said hundreds more may be torn down. In all, more than 11,000 Palestinians in Rafah -- out of a population of 90,000 -- have been made homeless by Israeli demolitions since the outbreak of fighting in 2000.
At the United Nations in New York, Arab nations requested a Security Council meeting today to consider Israel's move against the camp. The Arab Group called on members to take ''necessary measures" against Israel for violating international law.
Palestinian militants planted bombs around Rafah, residents said. A 23-year-old Palestinian was killed early today when a bomb he was assembling exploded, they said. Israeli security officials said they plan to expand the patrol road to a width of 250 yards, almost double its current size in some places.
The army is also considering digging a deep trench, or even a moat, to block the tunnels that lead from Egypt to Rafah.
The Israeli patrol road was carved out in the 1980s after Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty and Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula.