Tim Butcher in Jerusalem – Telegraph.co.uk March 6, 2008
Palestinian militants in Gaza have staged a daring raid into Israel, detonating a roadside bomb and then ambushing the emergency response team sent to deal with the blast.
The relatively sophisticated attack, which killed an Israeli soldier, was the first of its kind used by Palestinian militants and appeared to have been inspired by the tactics of the Iranian-trained Lebanese group Hizbollah.
Israel has long complained that militants from Gaza have been smuggled out to receive military training in Iran, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Militants claim responsibility at a news conference in Gaza
But such an attack bearing Hizbollah's hallmarks will prove deeply alarming for Israel. It was the first time since June 2006 that militants have penetrated Israel from Gaza in significant numbers.
The Hizbollah-style strategy of pre-positioning an ambush team had not been used by Palestinians before. In spite of the recent bloody incursion into Gaza by the Israeli army that killed scores of gunmen and civilians, militants continued to pile pressure on Israel by firing rockets out of Gaza.
The growing sense of crisis led Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, to postpone a trip to Washington so that he can deal with the Gaza situation.
The day began with the early morning blast as an Israeli army vehicle moved along a patrol road on the Israeli side of the frontier with Gaza. The detonation was large enough to blow the vehicle to pieces and set it alight. One soldier died and three others were injured, one seriously.
Culvert mines are a favourite tactic of Hizbollah and were used to devastating effect in the late 1990s to pressurise Israel to withdraw from Lebanon. But it was the ambush of the other Israeli army vehicles and troop carriers that deployed to the scene that made the incident stand out.
It is not normal Palestinian militant practice to set up secondary ambushes. The attack, which was claimed by both Islamic Jihad and Hamas, was reminiscent of the Hizbollah cross-border raid into Israel from Lebanon in July 2006 that sparked that summer's 34-day conflict.
The continued aggressive posture of militants raised the likelihood of another Israeli army incursion into Gaza similar to the 48-hour Operation Warm Winter last weekend.
The friction around the Gaza perimeter continued as Egypt sought to persuade Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the most active of militant groups in Gaza, to agree to a ceasefire with Israel.
The Egyptian government also said that it plans to build a 10 ft concrete wall along part of its border with Gaza to help to prevent a repeat of the recent scenes when thousands of Palestinians poured into Egypt.
The Israeli government has rejected the conclusions of a report by British aid agencies that said that Gaza was suffering its worst humanitarian conditions in 40 years due to Israel's stranglehold on the Hamas-run territory.
A series of statements from government ministries claimed the report was incorrect. The Israeli defence ministry said that Hamas was to blame for the humanitarian problems.
Last updated 09/03/2008