JERUSALEM (AP) – An aide to Israel’s public security minister was wounded by a Palestinian gunman on Friday as he toured an observation point overlooking the Gaza Strip with a group of Canadian tourists.
Dozens of other people were at the site at the time, Cabinet Minister Avi Dichter said, but no one else was hurt.
The deputy director of Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon, Dr. Emile Hay, said Dichter’s bureau chief, Matti Gil, was in stable condition with gunshot wounds to the lower abdomen and pelvis.
Several militant groups claimed responsibility for the attack, including the military wing of Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement, the militant offshoot of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah Party, and two little-known radical Islamic groups inspired by al Qaeda, the Army of the Nation and Protectors of the Homeland.
Such shootings across the border fence are fairly rare. Militant groups in Gaza fire rockets into southern Israel almost every day, often prompting retaliatory air strikes and land incursions.
Later Friday, Israeli troops briefly entered the Gaza Strip to fire at gunmen who approached the fence about two kilometers (one mile) south of where the minister’s entourage came under attack, the army said. Palestinians reported heavy fire in the area.
Such tit-for-tat violence has dropped in recent weeks, after a flare up last month that left more than 120 Palestinians and three Israelis dead. The bloodshed casts a shadow over U.S.-backed peace talks between Israel and the moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. Israel has said no peace deal can be implemented as long as Hamas is controlling Gaza.
A video Hamas released after the shooting, taken from the Palestinian side, showed a gunman firing across a field of thistles, a few hundred meters (yards), toward a group of people standing near a tour bus and cars. “This is to confirm the continuation of our holy war and … the targeting of every Zionist on our pure land,” read a claim on Hamas’ official Web site. Dichter was the target of the shooting, the statement said.
Toronto-resident Moshe Ronen was present during the attack. He was touring southern Israel with the board of the Canada-Israel Committee, which he chairs, to learn about life there under rocket fire. “Within a few seconds of the sound of the shooting we understood we were being fired on,” Ronen said. “The secret service of Minister Dichter told us to get down on the ground and both the minister and I were pushed to the ground and had our heads in the sand and didn’t move for about ten minutes.”
Israel’s army returned fire within a few minutes from a post at the overlook, forcing the Palestinians to stop shooting. The Canadians then ran, bent down, to a nearby concrete wall where they waited an hour and a half until they were evacuated. “We’re OK, just a little shaken,” Ronen said. “It’s a miracle that no one in our own group was injured or killed…. Dichter had told us when he started his briefing that if anything happens we should lay on the ground but we didn’t expect that it would actually happen.”
The Canadian group is comprised of both Jews and Christians from Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Halifax, Ronen said.
Dichter and his staff had taken the Canadians to the overlook near the town of Sderot to familiarize them with the Palestinian attacks on southern Israel, which sometimes include gunshots on the farming communities located along the border fence. “The Canadian group behaved terrifically, as if they are under fire in Canada every day,” throwing themselves down on the ground immediately and crawling toward the army outpost, Dichter told Army Radio.
Gaza militants have bombarded Israeli border communities with rockets since late 2001, killing 13 people, severely disrupting daily life and provoking harsh Israeli retaliation. With Egyptian mediation, however, there has been a lull in recent weeks.
At the northern end of the Gaza Strip, militants opened fire Friday on farmers working in the fields of a communal farm, or kibbutz. No one was hurt. Three months ago, an Ecuadorean volunteer at the kibbutz was killed by Palestinian sniper fire.