GAZA,(Reuters) – Israeli troops dug in across a swathe of the northern Gaza Strip on Friday and an air strike killed a Hamas militant following the bloodiest day of fighting with Palestinian gunmen in nearly two years.
The Israeli army said an aircraft had opened fire at a group of four armed men close to the scene of the worst violence on Thursday, when 19 Palestinians and a soldier were killed. Three Palestinians were wounded and one killed in the air strike.
The army pushed deep into northern Gaza on Thursday, taking over areas that Israel abandoned last year, in an offensive launched with the aim of bringing home a captured soldier and halting rocket fire into the Jewish state.
The incursion has piled more pressure on the Palestinian government of the Hamas Islamist militant group, already reeling from a Western aid embargo. Any lingering hope that peace talks could be revived has been dashed by the violence.
Both sides prepared for more bloodshed on Friday although there were no reports of any immediate street fighting.
A shell hit an empty building of the Palestinian security forces. Israeli helicopters circled above.
Edgy gunmen scurried through alleyways and prepared bombs to attack any Israeli advance.
“What is happening on Palestinian land is a crime against humanity,” said Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered tanks deep into Gaza after Hamas militants fired rockets into a major Israeli city for the first time. The offensive began last week with the main goal of winning the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, captured in a raid from Gaza on June 25.
“The terrorists have paid a heavy price so far,” Israeli military chief Lieutenant General Dan Halutz said.
Despite taking over what amounts to a buffer zone inside Gaza, Israeli officials say there is no plan for long term re-occupation of territory given up last year after 38 years of military rule.
Hamas accuses Israel of using Shalit’s abduction as a pretext to topple its elected administration. Israel has detained more than a third of Haniyeh’s cabinet and hinted it could assassinate Hamas leaders if Shalit is killed.
A poll in the Maariv daily on Friday showed 82 percent of Israelis believe the Jewish state should kill Hamas leaders in response to the crisis in Gaza.
Senior Hamas lawmaker Mushir al-Masri said such sentiments would backfire.
“The Israeli people will be sacrificing themselves if they push their leaders toward escalation because whoever shares in the crime against our people will one day pay for it,” he said.
An Israeli helicopter gunship wrecked Haniyeh’s empty Gaza office before dawn on Sunday.
The former Jewish settlements have been used as sites to launch rockets into Israel. Militants fired several overnight.
A Palestinian security source said over 100 tanks had crossed into Gaza and more were massing outside.
The longer an offensive goes on, the more likely Israel will come under international pressure to pull back.
The immediate trigger for expanding the offensive was Tuesday’s rocket strike on Ashkelon, 12 km (7 miles) from Gaza, The city is the furthest point reached by one of the makeshift missiles, which spread panic but have caused few casualties.
At least 28 Palestinians, the majority of them militants, have been killed since the Israeli offensive began, according to Palestinian medics and officials.
Military chief Halutz said nearly 40 “people of terror” had been killed. Hamas lawmaker Masri said most fatalities were “children, civilians and innocent people”.
Israeli leaders would be happy if the operation resulted in the fall of Hamas, but there is little idea what might take the place of the Islamist group.