GAZA (Reuters) – Israel lost its first soldier in combat in nine months on Thursday in a confrontation with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, where the Islamist group seized control over rival Palestinian factions a month ago.
In the clash, which fell on the anniversary of the start of Israel’s war with Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas a year ago, two Palestinian gunmen also were wounded.
An Israeli military statement said the soldier was killed and two others were wounded in a raid on militant targets in central Gaza, where the army has stepped up incursions since Hamas routed forces loyal to the Western-backed Palestinian president last month.
The soldier was the first Israeli killed in combat since November, a military spokeswoman said.
Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, said its gunmen ambushed the Israeli troops as they entered the al-Bureij refugee camp in Gaza, by detonating explosives and shooting rocket-propelled grenades and machineguns.
During the fighting Israel launched an air strike that seriously wounded at least two Palestinian militants of the Islamic Jihad group, medics and witnesses said.
An Israeli military raid in the same part of Gaza last week had killed 11 Palestinians, nine of them Hamas militants.
The Qassam Brigades vowed in a statement issued after its attack, to pursue its strikes against Israel: “We will continue to sow death among the soldiers of the occupation in our beloved Gaza Strip.”
HAMAS VOWS TO ‘TEAR UP’ OCCUPATION
Israel withdrew its forces and Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005 but has pressed on with raids aimed at halting rocket fire at the Jewish state, particularly since Hamas’s rout on June 14 of President Mahmoud Abbas’s secular Fatah forces.
The United States has sought to boost Abbas’s emergency cabinet that he named in the occupied West Bank after sacking a unity government with Hamas after last month’s fighting, in a move that has divided control over the Palestinian territories.
With Western backing, Israel has sought to isolate Hamas in coastal Gaza, keeping most of the territory’s crossings to the Jewish state largely shut, opening them only partially to allow in humanitarian supplies to reach 1.5 million residents.
The latest violence in Gaza coincided with Israel’s remembrance of a war it launched last July 12 in response to Hezbollah’s capture in a border raid of two soldiers — a war whose aftermath saw Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s popularity plummet for the Israeli army’s failure to crush Hezbollah.
“There has been an erosion in Israel’s deterrence capability,” Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz said on Army Radio, summing up the results of the 34-day war in which 157 Israelis and more than 1,200 Lebanese died. Most of the Israeli dead were soldiers, most of the Lebanese were civilians.
Olmert toured northern border towns and military bases on Thursday. International human rights groups said both sides should answer for possible war crimes involving attacks on towns on both sides of the border.