RAFAH, Gaza Strip -- Israeli troops pulled back from two neighborhoods in this major Palestinian refugee camp yesterday, leaving behind demolished houses, torn-up roads, and flattened cars. But they said the offensive, launched in search of arms-smuggling tunnels and militants, was not over.
Army spokeswoman Major Sharon Feingold said dozens of Palestinians, including senior suspected militants, had been detained and a local leader of the armed group Hamas had been killed. The army said no tunnels had been found.
''The operation has not ended; we have redeployed forces and allowed residents to stock up on food," Feingold said.
At least 43 houses have been demolished, and dozens more damaged in the camp since the offensive began Tuesday, municipal officials said. Thirty-nine Palestinians have been killed, including gunmen and eight demonstrators hit by a tank shell.
Feingold said five houses were demolished after they were used as cover by militants to attack troops. Other damage to houses and roads was caused by heavy military vehicles and Palestinian roadside bombs, the army said.
In the Brazil section of Rafah, 25 houses were razed, and the streets were torn up, local officials said. In many cases, the faades of houses caved in or were shorn off after wide armored vehicles pushed through the narrow alleys.
Residents picked through the rubble, retrieving mattresses, photo albums, shoes, and clothing. A boy, oblivious, sat on the ground and scooped up sand with a broken toy bulldozer.
Israeli troops left behind leaflets in Arabic urging residents not to give shelter to armed men ''who are using your homes and are hiding inside like rats."
Yacoub Othman, 55, who lives in the Brazil neighborhood, said he was hit in the leg by random fire as he walked downstairs in his home Wednesday.
''I tried to sterilize the wound with the little alcohol we had at home, but I couldn't even open the window and call on my neighbor to call for an ambulance because the snipers were right in front of us and the bulldozer was working in the street in front of us," Othman said. Doctors said Othman's wound became infected.
Reporters were still unable yesterday to get into the hardest-hit neighborhood, Tel Sultan, which lost water and electricity for part of the Israeli offensive.
UN officials said several water trucks reached the area yesterday, negotiating torn-up roads to bring fresh supplies to some of the neighborhood's 25,000 residents.
''It's quite wild; the trucks are being mobbed by the locals, who have been without supplies for such a long time," UN spokesman Johan Eriksson said.
Local officials said 10 houses were demolished in Tel Sultan and more were damaged. Resident Fathi Abdel-Al, speaking by telephone, said he saw smoldering and charred cars, toppled utility poles, and sewage running in the streets.
Mohammed Jumaa, the owner of a zoo in Tel Sultan, said Israeli troops, backed by bulldozers, demolished cages and pens, killing some animals and setting dozens free. A headless ostrich, dead chickens, and a dead peacock littered the ground.
A tiger, some 55 African and American parrots, a variety of snakes, and several raccoons and monkeys were missing, Jumaa said. The Israeli army said it was checking the report.
Abdel Rahim Abu Jazer, 42, a teacher, searched for food and water for his children. ''I hardly recognized my own street," he said. ''I don't think an earthquake could do what the Israeli army did to this area."
A key objective of the offensive remains the widening of an Israeli patrol road between Rafah and the Egyptian border, which would make it more difficult for weapons smugglers to dig tunnels.
Widening the road also would require the demolition of dozens of Palestinian houses, a security official said on the condition of anonymity. Palestinian officials estimate that hundreds of houses would be razed if the road is widened.
Israel's vice premier, Ehud Olmert, assured US Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in a meeting in Washington, D.C., this week that the buffer zone would not be widened, US officials said. Israeli security officials said yesterday, however, that the army is still pushing for an expansion of the zone by at least 300 yards.
Attorney General Meni Mazuz of Israel instructed the army Thursday to come up with alternatives that cause less destruction. He said even the latest proposal would not hold up in local and international courts, officials said.
Israel launched ''Operation Rainbow" on Tuesday, less than a week after 13 soldiers were killed by militants in the Gaza Strip.