GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli aircraft bombed smuggling tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border on Wednesday in a response to the killing of an Israeli soldier, violence that strained a fragile ceasefire before the arrival of a U.S. peace envoy.
George W. Mitchell, U.S. President Barack Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, planned to meet Israeli leaders later in the day and hold talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied West Bank on Thursday.
Western diplomats said he would not meet officials of Hamas, the Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip and which the United States and European Union shun over its refusal to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept existing interim peace deals.
Mitchell’s mission follows a call by Obama for a return to Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
But a surge of violence has threatened the separate ceasefires that Israel and Hamas put into effect on January 18 after the 22-day offensive that Israeli leaders launched with the declared aim of ending cross-border rocket attacks.
A bomb Palestinian militants planted near the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel killed an Israeli soldier and wounded three other troops on Tuesday. A little-known Islamist group claimed responsibility.
Israeli fire then killed a Palestinian, identified by Gaza medical workers as a farmer. An Israeli air strike seriously wounded a militant on a motorcycle who the military said was involved in the bombing attack.
Israel followed up those attacks by sending aircraft to bomb smuggling tunnels in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, on the Egyptian border. There were no reported casualties, but residents fled their homes in panic.
Hamas has used the tunnel network, heavily bombed by Israel during the war, to smuggle in weapons.
Israel has secured U.S. and European pledges to help to prevent Hamas from rearming through the tunnels and by sea. Israel also has lobbied its Western allies to pressure Cairo to seal its porous border with the Gaza Strip.
Palestinians have relied on the tunnels as an economic lifeline, smuggling in commercial goods that Israel has not allowed past the blockade it tightened on the Gaza Strip after Hamas seized the territory in internal fighting in 2007.
Palestinians had begun to rebuild tunnels after both sides called a halt to attacks in which 1,300 Palestinians, including at least 700 civilians, and 10 Israeli soldiers and three Israeli civilians were killed.
Israeli leaders, responding to Tuesday’s explosion at the Gaza border, promised voters to hit back hard.
Mark Regev, an Olmert spokesman, said Israel held Hamas responsible for “all hostile fire” from the territory.
“Israel wants the quiet in (southern Israel) to continue, but in response to violent provocations by Hamas, provocations deliberately designed to undermine the quiet, Israel will act to defend herself. If Hamas continues with its violent provocations, the ceasefire will simply not exist,” he said.
Egypt is mediating a lasting ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, which refuse to hold direct negotiations. Israel wants to include the fate of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held by Hamas since 2006, in any deal with the Islamist group.
Hamas has said it wants Israel to open border crossings and the blockade in exchange for militants halting rocket fire. It has rebuffed Israeli demands to include Shalit’s fate in any ceasefire deal.