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Fighting fierce as Israelis try to build Gaza buffer

Military operation launched to prevent rocket attacks into Israel

An Israeli army tank comes out of northern Gaza near Kibbutz Kfar Azza Thursday.
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Dozens were killed in Gaza as Israeli forces fought militants.
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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Twelve Palestinians were killed Friday and early Saturday in northern Gaza, Palestinian sources said, as the Israeli military attempted to create a buffer zone to protect Israel from Palestinian rocket attacks.

As Israel deployed hundreds of troops, tanks and armored personnel carriers, Palestinians managed to fire a Qassam rocket into Israel on Friday. The Israeli military said no one was hurt.

The operation was launched by Israel after a Qassam rocket attack killed two children in the southern Israeli town of Sderot Wednesday.

Four Islamic Jihad militants died Saturday when an unmanned Israeli aircraft fired a missile at them in Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza, Palestinian security sources said.

An Israeli military source told CNN the strike was aimed at gunmen about to attack while the Palestinian sources said the men were praying. The Israeli source said at least three men were killed, including two Islamic Jihad operatives.

Eight Palestinians were killed Friday. Another died as a result of wounds suffered Thursday.

A Palestinian was killed and four were wounded when they were attacked by an Israeli aircraft in Beit Lahiya, Palestinian security officials said. Israeli military sources said the aircraft fired on militants who attempted to launch a Qassam. The Israeli sources said the Qassam exploded on the ground and caused the Palestinian casualties.

Also Friday, Palestinian security officials said an Israeli helicopter fired two rockets at an electric goods store connected to a house in Gaza City. The house burned, but no casualties were reported. The Israel Defense Forces said the air force attacked a building where weapons were made.

Including the 12 Palestinian deaths in the past 24 hours, 45 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Thursday. Three Israelis also were killed in Thursday's violence.

Three Palestinians killed Friday were hit by an Israeli air strike in Jabalya refugee camp, according to Israeli military sources, who said the Palestinians were about to launch Qassam rockets. Palestinian medical sources said the three were killed by an Israeli tank shell.

Earlier, three other Palestinians were killed by Israeli tank fire in the same area, the sources said.

Another Palestinian was shot and killed near the Erez border crossing, which separates Israel and northern Gaza, according to the Israeli military. The Israeli army said he was killed when Palestinians disguised as policemen took control of a Palestinian police post.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had announced Thursday that the army was launching the large-scale, open-ended operation -- code-named "Days of Penitence" -- in an attempt to stop the rocket attacks.

According to sources familiar with the plan, Israeli troops will search for cells launching Qassam rockets, destroy workshops where the rockets are manufactured, and demolish houses to eliminate cover for rocket launchers. The range of the crude, homemade Qassams is roughly the width of the buffer zone, about 5 1/2 miles.

The plan calls for Israeli troops to remain in the buffer zone for an extended period. Two Israeli army brigades have deployed inside Gaza with another two poised to go in, military sources said.

Much of the fighting has raged in Jabalya, Gaza's largest refugee camp, home to more than 100,000 people.

The Israeli army is "determined to act" against the Palestinian "terrorist infrastructure."

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said: "Northern Gaza is under occupation and we fear that very soon all of Gaza will be reoccupied by the Israeli army."

"This is not an invasion of Gaza," an Israeli official told CNN. Israel is "not going to re-occupy Gaza. We want to disengage, but we will not disengage under the fire of Qassam rockets. If there is going to be firing, it's going to be on the terrorists."

Under Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement proposal, Israel would pull all troops out of Gaza and abandon all settlements in the territory, but it would keep six large settlement blocs in the West Bank. But first, Sharon wants stability in Gaza to ensure a safe disengagement.

In Thursday's deadliest single incident, 10 Palestinians were killed and 20 others were wounded, many of them critically, when a crowd of militants mixed with civilians was hit near a marketplace in Jabalya by an Israeli tank shell, Palestinian security officials said. They said women and children were among the wounded.

Israeli military sources said initially a tank had fired at militants trying to lay explosives at the marketplace. Shortly after, they said, militants fired an anti-tank missile at troops from the same area. An Israeli tank then fired a tank shell at the source of the fire, the military sources said.

A senior Hamas leader told CNN on Thursday afternoon his group would stop Qassam attacks if Israeli troops would pull out of Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahaya and Jabalya, where fighting has been heavy.

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