JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli forces killed three Palestinian militants on the Gaza border after nightfall Tuesday, the military and Israeli media said, in the bloodiest clash since a truce between Israel and the Islamic Hamas rulers of Gaza expired over the weekend.
The clash and renewed rocket fire from Gaza after a one-day lull dampened hopes that a truce that expired over the weekend could be quickly renewed, but diplomatic efforts persisted.
Israel said three militants were spotted planting explosives in northern Gaza along the border fence. Soldiers crossed a few yards (meters) into Gaza and engaged the Palestinians, who threw grenades. The military said soldiers returned fire, hitting the three. Israeli media said they were killed, the first to die since the truce ended.
There was no immediate Palestinian comment. In the past, militant groups have responded to such clashes with rocket barrages.
Before the clash, five rockets and a mortar were fired at Israel on Tuesday. No casualties or damage were reported. On Monday Hamas ordered a one-day halt to rocket fire, hoping for shipments of food, but Hamas official Taher Nunu said Tuesday it would not be extended. A truce that largely held for five months started unraveling in early November and expired on Friday.
Abu Obeida, a masked spokesman for the armed wing of Hamas, denied Tuesday there was even a one-day halt. “Firing rockets at Israel is not a game,” he said. “It is used for a reason, and we fire strategically against Israel.”
So far the number of rockets and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes has not approached the pre-truce level, feeding hopes that the cease-fire can be resumed.
Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu said the Islamic militants would study any new offer, but it must include a halt to Israeli military operations and lifting of the blockade, with open crossings between Israel and Gaza and the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.
Israel has said it would hold its fire if the rocket attacks stop but has given no guarantees about opening the crossings. Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza last year, Israel has limited cargo shipments to vital supplies, closing the crossings almost completely in November with the resumption of rocket fire. Shortages are common in the impoverished territory.
Egypt, which mediated the expired truce, is pressing for its renewal. Mubarak met Tuesday in Cairo with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who urged him to work for a new cease-fire, according to Abbas aide Saeb Erekat. Abbas has little sway in Gaza after Hamas overran the territory and expelled his loyalists.
On Thursday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will go to Cairo for talks about a truce, at Mubarak’s invitation. Egypt is eager to maintain its influence with the Palestinians, concerned that extremist elements in Gaza could spill over into Egypt.
Alongside talk of restoring the truce, Israel is preparing for another round of violence.
Israeli leaders have approved a large-scale military operation to stop the rocket fire, but have not set a date, concerned about heavy casualties on both sides. Also, past incursions have not halted the barrages.
In another development Tuesday, the French consul general in Jerusalem, Alain Remy, said about $3 billion (¤2.15 billion) in aid has been poured into the Palestinian areas so far in 2008, nearly half the amount pledged over three years by donor countries last year. However, the economies in both the West Bank and Gaza remain in tatters.