GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – Israeli troops killed two Palestinian militants in a clash in the northern Gaza Strip on Thursday, a new outbreak of violence that came as a key Israeli envoy headed to Egypt in a bid to wrap up a cease-fire with the Hamas militant group.
The Israeli military said troops spotted a group of armed Palestinian men planting a bomb near the border with Israel. The army said the gunmen opened fire at the troops, and the soldiers fired back, hitting two of the militants.
Two Palestinian militant groups confirmed the deaths, saying the men were killed carrying out an unspecified operation. Palestinian medical officials were trying to recover the bodies.
The clash occurred near the Erez border crossing, the Israeli-controlled terminal that regulates the movement of people in and out of Gaza. Palestinian militants frequently attack Erez and other border crossings, viewing them as symbols of Israel’s yearlong blockade of Gaza.
Israel imposed the blockade in June 2007 after Hamas, a violent Islamic group that has killed hundreds of Israelis, violently seized control of Gaza. It has tightened the sanctions in recent months in response to increased rocket fire by Palestinian militants in Gaza.
Israel has repeatedly threatened to launch a massive ground offensive in Gaza if the rocket fire persists. But on Wednesday, Israeli leaders decided against an invasion for the meantime, saying they wanted to give Egypt more time to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas. At the same time, however, Israel, convinced Hamas will use a lull to rearm, said it would push forward with preparations for the offensive.
Israel’s point man in the cease-fire talks, Amos Gilad, was traveling to Egypt to help clinch a deal.
Israeli government and security officials said Israel is willing to give the Egyptian mediation efforts about two more weeks to succeed, but if those efforts fail, it will launch its Gaza invasion.
Egypt is acting as middleman in the truce talks because Israel has no contacts with Hamas, which has killed more than 250 Israelis in suicide attacks and rejects the Jewish state’s right to exist.
Major points of contention remain, most prominently, Israel’s demand to link the truce deal to the release of an Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas for two years, and Hamas’ demand that Israel open Gaza’s border crossings. The closure has prevented the vast majority of Gaza’s 1.4 million people from traveling abroad, and led to widespread shortages of fuel, electricity and basic goods.
Israelis who live near Gaza are pressuring the government to launch a punishing assault on Gaza to stop the Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks, which have disrupted life in southern Israel and killed four people this year, including a man killed last week.
Their appeals have considerable support among the broader Israeli public, but the deterrents are similarly considerable. Past military operations have failed to stop the barrages. High casualties on both sides would likely result. And a major incursion into Gaza would be liable to force Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to call off peace talks his government has been holding with Israel since late November. Abbas, who has ruled from the West Bank since Hamas seized power in Gaza last year, still claims to represent the people of Gaza.