GAZA, (Reuters) – Israel killed six Palestinians including five militants and wounded 45 people in a series of air strikes and gun battles in the northern Gaza Strip on Wednesday, Palestinian security sources and witnesses said.
The raid was one of the biggest since Israel launched an offensive in Gaza to press for the release of a soldier captured by Palestinian gunmen on June 25 in a cross-border attack and to halt militant rocket fire into the Jewish state.
One Israeli soldier was killed in a gun battle, the army said. The armed wing of the ruling Hamas Islamist movement said its gunmen killed the soldier and wounded others.
Israeli soldiers backed by armoured vehicles entered northern Gaza before dawn and fighting quickly erupted, followed by air strikes and tank shelling, witnesses said.
Moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Israel was waging “all-out war”, and called the operation “despicable”.
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said he hoped the attacks, which he branded a “massacre”, would not harm Egyptian-brokered talks trying to arrange a swap of Palestinian prisoners in Israel for the release of the captive soldier.
A Hamas delegation has been holding negotiations with Egyptian officials in Cairo this week on a possible deal.
In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s security cabinet agreed to continue current Gaza operations and step up pressure on Hamas, a government statement said. It did not elaborate.
“The intention is to hit the rocket launch sites and terror infrastructure but not to use it as a means of reoccupying Gaza,” deputy defence minister Ephraim Sneh told Israel Radio.
Israel Radio said new cabinet minister Avigdor Lieberman recommended the army adopt what the radio called the “Russian model in Chechnya”, conjuring up images of massive destruction during Russian operations in the volatile Russian region.
Lieberman, a far-right politician who joined the cabinet this week as minister of strategic affairs, said the report was inaccurate. In a statement, he condemned “distorted and tendentious leaks” from the security cabinet meeting.
Israel withdrew its army and Jewish settlers from Gaza last year after a 38-year occupation, but tension began rising along the frontier when Hamas took power after winning January elections. The movement formally seeks to destroy Israel.
Air strikes around the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun killed a Palestinian policeman and two gunmen, including one from Hamas, Palestinian security sources said. Three other Hamas gunmen were killed by tank fire and in clashes, witnesses said.
At least two dozen people were wounded in ground clashes, including gunmen and civilians, hospital officials said. Others were wounded in the air strikes, they said.
Residents said the army was operating deep inside Beit Hanoun in what they said appeared to be the biggest raid there since Israel’s withdrawal last year.
The Israeli military said there was “ground action” in northern Gaza, adding that air strikes were aimed at gunmen. Militants vowed revenge. “Bombardment for bombardment. Blood for blood,” the Hamas armed wing said in a statement.
Gunmen later fired at least two homemade rockets into the Israeli border town of Sderot, lightly wounding one person, medical officials said.
Nearly 280 Palestinians have been killed in the four-month-old Israeli offensive, about half of them civilians. Three Israeli soldiers have been killed.