RAFAH REFUGEE CAMP, May 19 — As a throng of Palestinians marched in protest here today, an Israeli tank and helicopter gunship opened fire, leaving at least nine people dead, including children, and dozens wounded, witnesses said.
The incident began when more than a thousand Palestinians responded to a public committee's call to demonstrate this afternoon by walking down a central avenue toward the Tel al-Sultan neighborhood on Rafah's outskirts, where Israeli forces seized control Tuesday in what the Army called a hunt for militants.
As the leading edge of the crowd of men and boys approached an Israeli tank position, two thunderous explosions rang out, interspersed with jackhammer blasts of machine gun fire. Clouds of dust rose in the air as debris and blood sprayed across the road. The Palestinians turned to flee, some carrying bleeding children in their arms.
The Israeli Army expressed "deep sorrow over the loss of civilian lives" and said it was investigating the "very grave incident," but it said its troops did not fire deliberately on the marchers.
In a statement, it said that a helicopter had shot flares and "warning fire" of one missile toward an open area. It said that, because the crowd "continued to converge toward the troops," machine gun fire was opened at an "abandoned structure," and four tanks shells were also fired at the same building.
"It is possible that the casualties were a result of the tank fire on the abandoned structure," the statement continued, adding that this was "an area of combat" and that Palestinians had planted explosives in the road.
Palestinian witnesses angrily denied that any gunmen were present in the march. A reporter who was present saw two young men with semi-automatic rifles standing on the sidewalk at the rear of the marchers' route, but did not see any guns or other weapons brandished among hundreds of protesters.
In wailing ambulances and battered sedans, the wounded were rushed through rutted sand lanes to Al Najar hospital. There, shouting, shoving men converged on each vehicle, grasping for the wounded and rushing them up a concrete ramp that was spotted crimson and into the hospital.
Inside, one boy wearing only blue shorts pressed a hand to a bulky white bandage over his right eye. He lay on a flowered mattress on the floor, his face a mask of bewilderment and fear. Someone had scrawled his name in ink on his chest.
Medics lowered another boy on a stretcher onto the floor beside the first. His left pants leg, which had been torn open, was soaked with blood, and his left leg was heavily bandaged below the knee.
Turning his face as he fought back tears, Kemal Breika, 38, hovered beside the stretcher of his son, Atta, 10. "When they fired the shell, I was knocked to the ground, and my son fell on me, with shrapnel in him," Mr. Breika said.
Hisham Ashoul, 45, said the marchers had just crossed Tel Zarub square here when a hovering helicopter unleashed a missile, and a tank on a hill about 150 yards ahead opened fire. "I saw the tank fire," he said. "When we were collecting the children from the ground, they fired again."
Hospital officials were still trying to identify some of mutilated bodies this evening, but they said they had identified at least three children, aged 12, 13, and 15. One of them died not from shrapnel but from a gunshot to the head, the officials said.
Together with several other Palestinians, including a 14-year-old boy who was killed in Tel al-Sultan today, the fatalities among the protesters brought to at least 33 the number of Palestinians to die since Israeli bulldozers and tanks rolled into southern Gaza on Tuesday.
Palestinian officials called the incident an Israeli war crime, and the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, demanded an immediate Israeli withdrawal.
At the White House, the press secretary, Scott McLellan, said that the Bush administration had asked Israel for "the facts about what happened today." He said, "We are very concerned about reports from Gaza and the number of Palestinians who are said to have been injured and killed."
And Mr. Bush said: "I continue to urge restraint. It is essential that people respect innocent life in order for us to achieve peace. And we'll get clarification from the government."
The deaths and injuries of the protesters received widespread news coverage in Israel, feeding a growing debate about this Israeli incursion and a broader one about any presence of Israeli settlers and soldiers in Gaza.
The justice minister, Joseph Lapid, a leader of the centrist Shinui faction, seized on the deaths as further evidence that Israel should withdraw. He called the incident "A mistake, a human and diplomatic tragedy that is a result of the army's presence in Gaza."
At the Israeli parliament, Zeev Boim, the deputy defense minister, said, "We must express regret at the loss, regardless of the numbers and details."
But, he said, the demonstration was not entirely innocent. "It's not the May first parade," he said. "This is a war zone, and there are civilians in war zones. Some of them are innocent. Some are far from it and are deeply involved in terror, even when they remain defined as civilians."
Until today, Rafah had been relatively quiet, as, to the residents' surprise, Israeli forces concentrated instead on Tel al-Sultan, just to the north. Palestinians here say that militants in the area are based in Rafah. Here, Israeli forces demolished more than 80 houses last week in what the Army said was a search for weapons smuggling tunnels under an Israeli-patrolled zone and across the border with Egypt.
Israeli drones buzzed overhead today, and residents kept a wary eye on passing helicopter gunships. But those are familiar sounds and sights here, and for the most part residents of Rafah went about their business, while in Tel al-Sultan, thousands were shut in their homes by an Israeli-imposed curfew. Electricity and water was also cut off from the area, Palestinian officials said.
Before the deaths here this afternoon, an Israeli colonel leading the operation briefed reporters on its goals and tactics. Although higher-ranking officers on Tuesday had stressed the search for smuggling tunnels, this officer, identified only as Colonel Erez, said that Israeli troops in Tel al-Sultan were going house-to-house in a search for ammunition and wanted men.
"The roads and alleys are all lined with bombs and many homes are booby-trapped," he said.
He argued that Israel's decision to use ground troops, rather than simply bomb the neighborhood from the air, showed its concern for Palestinian civilians and "maintaining our moral posture."
Several wounded Palestinians interviewed in the last 24 hours said they were shot by snipers when they stepped out into the street. Noting the curfew, Colonel Erez said, "Someone who exits is obviously someone who is looking for trouble" and was therefore "a legitimate target."www.nytimes.com/2004/05/19/international/middleeast/19CND-ISRA.htmlE-mail this article