Israel was accused of violating international law after troops blew up scores of apartments in the Gaza Strip in the wake of a deadly attack on soldiers guarding a nearby Jewish settlement.
Meanwhile Damascus threatened to attack Israelis living in the occupied Golan Heights if Israel launched further attacks on Syrian soil like the one earlier this month.
Some 2,000 Palestinians residents of the Gaza town of Al-Zahara were evacuated from their homes as three nearby 13-storey buildings were dynamited at around 2:30 am (0030 GMT) Sunday in a single massive explosion.
Three Palestinian apartment buildings are blown up by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip town of al-Zahrah Oct. 26, 2003. The Israeli army blew up three 13-story Palestinian Authority buildings in the Gaza Strip on Sunday as part of what it said was a military operation. (Stringer/Israel/Reuters)
Several hundred Jewish residents of the adjacent Netzarim settlement also took refuge in bomb shelters during the operation.
Israeli security sources said the partially-constructed buildings had been used by Palestinian militants to spy on Israeli troop movements in Netzarim.
Witnesses said the impact of the blast shook the ground several kilometers (miles) away.
"I hope it will be a good message to the Palestinian Authority not to let civilian infrastructure be used for terror," said Brigadier General Gadi Shammi, the Israeli military commander in the Gaza Strip.
Three soldiers, including two women, were killed Friday in a pre-dawn ambush on Israeli army barracks around Netzarim claimed by the two radical Palestinian movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat called the demolition a "war crime", adding that more than 140 apartments had been destroyed.
"What the Israeli army has done this morning -- destroying three housing projects -- is a war crime and a major violation of the Geneva Convention," Erakat told AFP.
United Nations envoy Terje Roed-Larsen also "strongly deplored" the demolitions.
"Destroying property as a punitive measure is a clear violation of the rules of international law," he said in a statement.
"Such actions are also counterproductive towards Israel's legitimate security concerns, for they foster anger and despair among Palestinians."
However the Israelis were unrepentant, with one senior source saying that plans to demolish the buildings had been drawn up 11 months ago but had been put on hold to allow the Palestinian Authority (PA) time to stop militants from using them as observation posts.
"We expect buildings owned by the PA will not be used for terrorist activities but after the raid on Friday we saw that we could not let this go on," the source said.
Also in the Gaza Strip early Sunday, at least one Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli troops.
"A Palestinian armed with an assault rifle was spotted and killed in an exchange of fire with Israeli soldiers at dawn Sunday near an army position close to the Gush Katif settlement bloc," an Israeli military source said.
Two other Palestinians were also shot by Israeli forces as they approached a military position in the area, but there were no reports on the Israeli or Palestinian sides that more bodies had been recovered.
Earlier a hospital source in Gaza City said a 17-year-old Palestinian died of wounds received in an Israeli raid in Gaza City on Wednesday.
Doctors in the West Bank town of Nablus also said that a 39-year-old man who was shot by Israeli forces on Saturday had died of his injuries. The Israelis denied knowledge of any such incident.
Meanwhile, Syria's foreign minister warned Damascus could attack Israeli settlements in the Golan Heights if Israel launched another attack on its territory.
"If we are attacked again our people will not stand for it and we have to carry out the will of the people," Faruq al-Shara told Britain's Sunday Telegraph.
"Don't forget there are many Israeli settlements in the Golan. I am not exaggerating but I am describing things as they might happen."
On October 5, Israel bombed what it said was a training camp near Damascus allegedly used by the hardline Palestinian group Islamic Jihad. Damascus insisted the attack had targeted a civilian area.
Copyright 2003 AFP