Gaza clash puts shaky truce under pressure

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 13-Nov-08 | Author: Isabel Kershner| Source: International Herald Tribune

A Palestinian woman inspecting the damage to her house after an Israeli incursion in a village near the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis on Wednesday.

JERUSALEM: Four Hamas gunmen were killed Wednesday in a clash with Israeli soldiers along the Gaza border, further testing a shaky truce that took effect in June.

The military said in a statement that its forces had identified a group of gunmen attempting to place an explosive device near the border fence, leading to an exchange of fire. Four of the gunmen were killed and an Israeli soldier was lightly wounded, the statement said.

An army spokeswoman added that the military had carried out two airstrikes in open areas during the confrontation, and that the soldiers had chased the gunmen, who also fired mortars at the troops, into Gaza.

Witnesses told the independent Palestinian press agency Maan that Israel had fired two missiles, one near a mosque and another near a school or homes, while fighters were in the area.

Ayman Taha, a spokesman for Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, blamed Israel for the escalation. "There will be a painful response against the Zionist enemy," he told Reuters.

Both Hamas and Israeli officials have expressed their interest in renewing the six-month truce, which is due to expire in December. But over the past week the agreement has begun to fray.

At least six Palestinian militants were killed in a clash and an Israeli airstrike Nov. 4 after an Israeli force entered Gaza for the first time in five months to destroy a tunnel that Israel said was intended for use in the abduction of a soldiers.

Over the following days, Palestinians fired dozens of rockets and mortar rounds into Israel.

All landed in open areas and caused little damage. In response, Israel closed down the commercial crossings where basic goods pass into Gaza, allowing in only a limited amount of fuel to be shipped Tuesday.

Christopher Gunness, the spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency that provides assistance to Palestinian refugees, said Tuesday that food distribution to 750,000 Gazans would cease Thursday unless the organization was able to get wheat and other essential goods across the border.

Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said Wednesday afternoon that no decision had yet been made regarding the reopening of the crossings.

Taghreed El-Khodary contributed reporting from Gaza.