The morgue overflowed and bodies of Palestinians killed during an Israeli raid on a refugee camp were stowed in a flower freezer yesterday after being hastily removed to make space for more casualties.

The Rafah hospital was struggling to cope with a toll of 31 dead and dozens wounded since Israeli armoured forces sealed off the teeming camp and stormed in on Tuesday in an operation against militants and arms-smuggling tunnels from nearby Egypt.

"We were forced to do this because of the siege and lack of space in the main morgue," said physician Manar Thhair, showing reporters 14 bodies laid out in two rows in the grimy freezer on the ground floor of a residential block where he lives.

The corpses, wrapped in white sheets or the green banners of the militant faction Hamas, drew a stream of grief-stricken local visitors to the freezer where flowers, an important export from Gaza, are normally kept fresh.

"We are really keeping the most beautiful flowers ever here, these bodies of 14 martyrs," said Thhair, a hospital doctor, using the Palestinian term for any compatriot, militant or civilian, killed during a three-and-a-half-year-old revolt against Israel.

"But most of the families of the martyrs do not know they are here. We cannot bury them without clear-cut permission from the families," he said. Israeli military operations pinned down many Rafah residents in their homes and caused power outages.

Thhair said the corpses risked swiftly decomposing, posing a health danger, because of the constant visitors requiring him to open the fridge doors.

"People, not all of them close relatives, are coming to look at the bodies and every time we open the door the temperature starts rising again. It cannot go on much longer like this, much more than another day."

Lieutenant Colonel Grisha Yaakobovitch, an Israeli army civil affairs spokesman, said his side had told the Palestinians they could move bodies and bury them where they wanted. "If they want to do so, then we can arrange it," he said.

Israeli forces massed around Rafah called by loudspeaker on Palestinian militants to surrender and all males over 16 to gather in one place or risk demolition of family homes.

Some residents of the camp said their menfolk were emerging in front of tanks but there was fear they could be harmed whether they were militants or not.