An Israeli helicopter gunship launched an overnight raid against the Gaza home of Islamic Jihad leader Muhammad al-Hindi, a member of the Palestinian movement said early on Saturday.

The helicopter fired two missiles at his home in Gaza's Nasr district, but the Islamic Jihad leader was apparently not injured. But at least 10 others were injured in the attack, according to an AFP reporter at the scene.

In an apparently coordinated attack, another helicopter gunship destroyed the headquarters of the radical Islamic Jihad group in Gaza City, injuring five people in the raid, a Palestinian security source said.

The latest air strikes came after two Israeli soldiers died and several others were wounded when a blast hit their military vehicle in the southern Gaza Strip on Friday.

Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, part of Palestinian President Yasir Arafat's Fatah movement, said they blew up the armoured jeep in the Rafah refugee camp, where Israeli occupation forces were destroying homes to widen a buffer zone along the Egyptian border.

Moments earlier, four Israeli soldiers were wounded, two of them seriously, when a Palestinian sniper opened fire on occupation troops searching the buffer zone for the remains of five comrades killed on Wednesday.

During the day, Israeli helicopters mounted several raids on the refugee camps lining the border, killing one Palestinian and wounding several, Palestinian medics said on Friday.

A Palestinian resistance fighter was also killed by the explosion of his bomb in a failed attack on the nearby Rafah Yam Jewish settlement, Israeli military sources said.

The latest Israeli losses cap the worst week for the Israeli army since the start of the intifada in September 2000 - 13 soldiers have died in Gaza since Tuesday - and are fanning growing support in Israel for a pullout from the territory.

Demolishing houses

Meanwhile, Israeli bulldozers demolished more than 20 houses
fronting onto the border buffer zone, which Israel refers to as the "Philadelphi route". 

The Palestinian authority described Israel's plan to raze hundreds of houses in Gaza as a "major catastrophe", and urged the international community to prevent the demolitions.

Saib Uraiqat says Israel intends
to stay in Gaza

The Palestinian negotiations minister, Saib Uraiqat, said the impending demolitions in Rafah would be devastating for the Palestinian people.

"This shows Israel intends to stay in the Gaza Strip and not withdraw from it," he added.

His comments came after Israel public radio announced the army's plans for many more demolitions on Thursday.

"The first houses to be destroyed will be empty buildings. Then inhabited houses will be demolished. Israel will be responsible for finding new accommodation for the evacuated people," it said.

Controversial policy

The Israeli government's says the demolitions are aimed at preventing the use of cross-border arms-smuggling tunnels.

"It's impossible to believe that every one of these houses shelters militants or the entrance to a tunnel"

Paul McCann,
UNRWA

But the United Nations agency in charge of Palestinian refugees described the situation in Rafah as a "humanitarian catastrophe".

Paul McCann, from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), condemned Israel's policy of demolishing entire neighbourhoods in the refugee camps along the border with Egypt.

"It's impossible to believe that every one of these houses shelters militants or the entrance to a tunnel," McCann said.

Thousands homeless

Israeli demolitions aimed at widening the buffer zone have already made 11,000 Palestinians homeless since the start of the intifada in September 2000, in a policy that UNRWA chief Peter Hansen has condemned as "collective punishment".

Israel says the demolitions are
necessary to protect soldiers

McCann said the agency had only managed to find new housing for 1000 people over those three and half years and complained that an emergency appeal for larger donations this year had not been met.

However, the Israelis remain unrepentant and argue the planned action is a legitimate defensive measure.

An official from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office said it "is aimed at ensuring better protection for our soldiers who shouldn't remain as sitting ducks and at preventing the smuggling of weapons, mortars, rockets and tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip."