GAZA, (Reuters) – Israeli troops killed six gunmen from the militant group Hamas in clashes in the northern Gaza Strip on Saturday, Palestinian security sources said, amid a surge in violence in the coastal territory.
In the past three days, 19 Palestinians have been killed in fighting in Gaza, the majority of them militants. Around two dozen people have also been wounded. There have been no reports of any Israeli military deaths or injuries.
Since Israel stepped up its offensive in Gaza in June, following the kidnapping of one of its soldiers by militants, at least 250 Palestinians have been killed, around half civilians.
Israel says the offensive is designed to track down the kidnapped soldier and to stop militants firing home-made rockets into Israel. Rocket attacks have increased in recent days.
Four of the militants killed on Saturday died when a house they were hiding in was hit by an Israeli missile strike, security sources said.
The Israeli military confirmed an attack, saying an anti-tank missile had been fired at one of its units and they had responded.
A column of Israeli tanks backed by attack helicopters moved into an area east of the town of Jabalya, outside Gaza City, overnight, part of what Israel has dubbed operation “Rain Man”.
Israel says the operation will end on Sunday but that the timing “will be determined according to security assessments”.
Israeli media reported that Defence Minister Amir Peretz had instructed the military to expand its operations to prevent rocket attacks on towns in southern Israel.
Peretz is originally from the town of Sderot, just outside Gaza, which has been hit frequently by rockets fired from Gaza in the past year. The rocket attacks often cause damage and light injuries but very rarely cause deaths.
Earlier, an Israeli air strike destroyed a house in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, witnesses and medics said.
Israeli forces on Friday killed four Palestinians, three of them Hamas militants, in what has been the biggest upsurge of Israeli-Palestinian violence in Gaza in weeks. Nine people were killed on Thursday.
Israel pulled its troops and more than 8,000 Jewish settlers out of Gaza last year after 38 years of occupation. Since the pullout, Palestinian militants have consistently fired makeshift rockets from Gaza into Israel.
The recent fighting also comes amid deepening divisions among Palestinians, with forces from Hamas, which controls the Palestinian government, clashing with rivals loyal to Fatah, the faction headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Hamas defeated Fatah in elections in January this year and there has been a power struggle between the two groups and their leadership since.
Weeks of talks to form a unity government, and potentially put an end to the in-fighting, have so far failed to bear fruit.
Attempts to organise a first formal meeting between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in the pipeline for the past two weeks, also appear to have been put on hold, postponing efforts to revive long-stalled peace talks.