Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip infiltrated Israel through a tunnel early Sunday, lobbing grenades and bombs at a military outpost and killing two Israeli soldiers and seizing a third.
The ruling Hamas group said its fighters participated in the attack, calling it an act of revenge for Israel’s recent killing of militant leaders and civilians. Militants said three of their fighters were killed in a gunbattle with soldiers.
The predawn attack on the outpost near the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel, Gaza and Egypt was the first militant attack inside Israel since the Jewish state withdrew from the coastal strip last summer.
The military had no information on whether the missing soldier was dead or alive. Earlier Sunday, Palestinian militants said they had the body of an Israeli soldier. Militants historically have used captured Israeli soldiers – dead or alive – as a bargaining chip for the release of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.
Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas both contacted Egyptian officials, who in the past have been instrumental in mediating prisoner releases, Israeli and Palestinian officials said. Abbas also discussed the attack with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, his office said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert blamed Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, and the Hamas-led Palestinian government for the deadly assault. He was to meet with top security officials later Sunday to discuss a response, and afterward, was to convene his inner “security Cabinet” for an emergency session.
“We in Israel see the Palestinian Authority, headed by Chairman Abu Mazen and the Palestinian government responsible for this event, with all that implies,” Olmert said at the start of Israel’s weekly Sunday Cabinet meeting.
Israeli ground troops, backed by tanks and Apache helicopters, moved into Gaza to search the tunnel area shortly after the attack, and Gaza’s crossings were shut down, including the Kerem Shalom passage and the nearby Rafah border crossing with Egypt, the impoverished coastal strip’s main gateway to the outside world.
The Gaza-Egypt border was shut down for nearly three days last week after Israel received information about a planned attack in the area, but was reopened for traffic on Friday.
Militants crossed under Israel’s border fence with Gaza through a tunnel and lobbed bombs and grenades at an Israeli tank and an armored personnel carrier at the border post, the military said. Simultaneously, anti-tank missiles were fired at both vehicles from inside Gaza, the army said.
Two other militants, meanwhile, attacked a 25-yard high observation post with assault rifles, touching off a gunbattle with soldiers in which several militants were killed, the military said.
The military said four soldiers were wounded in the three-pronged attack, including three hurt by a bomb detonated shortly after the initial strike. One of the soldiers, who had been in the attacked tank, was seriously hurt, it said.
Hamas, which won a January parliamentary election, has ignored international calls to disarm and recognize Israel, despite crushing economic sanctions against its government. It has so far been unable to reach an understanding with the moderate Abbas, who wants to restart long-stalled peace talks, on accepting a proposal that would implicitly recognize Israel.
Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas were scheduled to resume talks on Sunday. If Hamas doesn’t accept the document, Abbas has said he will move ahead with a July 26 referendum on the proposal. Opinion polls indicate Palestinian voters back Abbas.
“This operation is a natural response to the Israeli crimes of killing women and children, and the assassination of two (militant) leaders,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said of Sunday’s attack.
The small Popular Resistance Committees and a previously unknown group, the Islamic Army, also participated in the assault.
One of the militant leaders, PRC leader Jamal Abu Samhadana, was killed in an Israeli air strike on June 8, shortly after accepting a senior security position in the Hamas-led government.
His death set off a chain of intensified hostilities that have included dozens of Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel and retaliatory Israeli air and artillery strikes that killed 13 Palestinian civilians and two gunmen. Palestinians also blame Israel for a June 9 explosion at a Gaza beach that killed people at a picnic. Israel claims it wasn’t firing artillery at the area when the blast occurred.
A statement from Abbas’ office said Sunday’s attack violated the spirit of the talks he had been holding with Hamas and other factions in recent days, and threatened to give Israel a “pretext to launch a widespread military operation” that could cost the Palestinians dearly. In those talks, factions voiced their commitment to a February 2005 cease-fire with Israel, the statement said.
Palestinian militants have often attacked main crossing points between Israel and Gaza, provoking shutdowns and deepening economic hardship in the already poverty-stricken coastal area.
The attack Sunday immediately touched off a closure of these crossings, including Rafah and the Karni passage between Gaza and Egypt, which is crucial to the Palestinian economy because it is the main conduit for goods coming in and out of Gaza.
Israeli tanks that crossed the border into Gaza kicked up smoke and dust as ground troops made their way about a half mile into Palestinian-controlled territory. Palestinians were ordered to evacuate the area, as Israeli helicopter gunships fired machine-guns at open fields.
The military confirmed a small force had entered Gaza to search the tunnel area, but wouldn’t say how many troops were involved. Soldiers, meanwhile, set up roadblocks near Kibbutz Kerem Shalom to search for gunmen.
A PRC spokesman, Abu Mujahid, said full details of the infiltration would be released at a news conference later in the day.
The militants attacked just hours after Israeli commandos carried out their first arrest raid in Gaza since last summer’s withdrawal, seizing two militants.