GAZA, (Reuters) – Israeli troops backed by tanks pushed deep into the northern and southern Gaza Strip on Wednesday, clashing with militants as they stepped up a nearly four-month-old offensive, Palestinian residents said.
The residents said at least two Palestinians were killed overnight in the northern Gaza Strip and identified them as being a gunman from the governing Hamas Islamist group and a civilian.
In clashes in the town of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, Palestinian hospital staff said the army killed two gunmen from the governing Islamist group Hamas.
An Israeli army spokesman said he was checking the report of the two deaths in Rafah. He added that the army was unaware of any clashes between troops and militants in the northern part of the Strip where he said forces were operating.
Over the past week, Israel has ramped up military operations that it launched in late June to try to recover a soldier captured in a cross-border raid, curtail rocket fire and find tunnels used to smuggle weapons and carry out attacks.
The Israeli-Palestinian violence has deepened the gloom in the territory, which is also beset by internal clashes between factions loyal to Hamas, dedicated to destroying Israel, and to President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate.
Around 250 Palestinians, about half of them civilians, have been killed in Israeli operations in Gaza since June.
Residents said Israeli forces had reached as deep into southern Gaza as the Rafah terminal, a crossing to Egypt that is Gaza’s only access to the outside world without passing through Israel.
The troops did not set up positions next to the terminal itself, which has been open only sporadically since the Israeli offensive started. Although under Palestinian control with EU monitors, Israel still has effective power to shut the crossing.
The armed wing of Hamas said it had blown a hole in the border wall with Gaza as a way to be able to move around to “monitor the Israelis”.
Following earlier hints that he might sack the government, President Mahmoud Abbas said on Tuesday he had to make a decision soon on the fate of the Hamas administration.
Talks between the two sides on a unity government collapsed after Hamas refused to soften its stand on Israel — dashing hopes that a coalition might be able to end a Western aid embargo.