An intense Israeli military operation on Saturday in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip has killed 46 Palestinians in Israel's deadliest raid on the territory in more than a year.
Israeli troops backed by tanks and warplanes fought fierce battles with Palestinian militants near the northern Gaza towns of Beit Hanoun and Jebaliya in an effort to stop rocket attacks on southern Israel.
Palestinian hospital officials say a number of the Palestinians killed were civilians. The others are believed to be Palestinian militants.
The Israeli army says two soldiers were killed in the fighting and several others wounded.
Meanwhile, Gaza militants fired about 40 rockets and mortar rounds into southern Israel, including some that landed in the coastal city of Ashkelon. Israel's army says three civilians were injured in the Ashkelon strikes.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the Israeli military operation as
"more than a holocaust."
On Friday, Israel's deputy defense minister Matan Vilnai said the more Palestinians intensify rocket fire, the bigger the "shoah" they will bring upon themselves. "Shoah" is the Hebrew word for holocaust or disaster. An Israeli spokesman Eitan Ginzburg said the deputy defense minister used the word to denote a disaster, not as a reference to the Holocaust.
At least 71 Palestinians have been killed this week in Israel's response to a wave of rocket attacks launched from Gaza into southern Israel. One of the attacks killed an Israeli civilian.
An Israeli government spokesman David Baker accused Gaza militants of using civilians as "human shields" in order to target Israeli population centers.
The violence could derail a US-led effort to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by the end of this year. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to visit the region next week to move the process forward. Hamas refuses to renounce violence or recognize Israel.