GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories (AFP) – Israeli tanks fired a barrage of shells into the Gaza Strip on Sunday following a firefight in which two militants were killed, as Hamas said it was “ready” for another war.
The escalation of violence comes just ahead of the two year anniversary of Israel’s devastating invasion of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, and follows weeks of rocket fire from Gaza and a string of retaliatory Israeli air raids.
In the latest incident, two Islamic Jihad militants were killed during an exchange of fire with Israeli soldiers on the border of the Gaza Strip early Sunday, according to witnesses and the Al-Quds brigade, a militant Islamist group.
Israeli officials confirmed the clash, which took place east of Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza.
“Soldiers opened fire on members of a terrorist cell which was trying to place an explosive charge in the immediate vicinity of the security barrier,” an Israeli army spokeswoman told AFP. The barrier separates Israel from the Gaza Strip.
“The incident happened in the south of the Gaza Strip and helicopters backed up the fire of the soldiers,” she added.
After a similar incident a month earlier, in which there were no casualties, “soldiers received instructions not to hesitate to open fire when they saw terrorists placing booby-trap devices near the barrier,” she said.
Hours after the firefight, Israeli tanks fired at least 10 shells towards Khan Yunis, an AFP photographer said. Three homes were damaged by the shells though no new casualties were reported.
Tension has been rising on the Gaza border, where armed Islamist groups have fired dozens of mortars and rockets into southern Israel.
In response, Israel has launched a series of air raids, including most recently early Saturday, that it said targeted training facilities and smuggling tunnels.
It has also launched targeted assassinations of several top members of the Army of Islam, a jihadist group accused by Israel of planning new attacks.
Meanwhile, the Hamas militant group that controls the Gaza Strip has said it plans to continue observing a truce with Israel, but also warned it was ready to resume fighting if there is an Israeli attack on the territory.
“There is a truce in effect in the field. It is real if Israel stops its aggression and ends its siege. But if there is any Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip we will respond strongly,” said a masked spokesman for Hamas’ armed wing, Al-Qassam Brigades, who identified himself as Abu Obeideh.
“We are completely ready to answer any Israeli aggression,” he said, speaking at a press conference Saturday in Gaza City with three guards, who were all masked and armed.
Abu Obeideh also hinted that the group possessed a secret weapon.
“Our weapons are few compared to those of the Israeli occupation, but we have something that will worry the occupation,” he said without giving details.
Israel’s military said this week that one of its tanks patrolling the Gaza border had been hit by a Russian-made Kornet anti-tank rocket, the first time such a weapon had been encountered there.
At least 23 mortars and four rockets have been launched at Israel from Gaza in the past week, the army said, including a Qassam rocket that struck near a kindergarten in a southern Israeli kibbutz, wounding a teenage girl.
While most of the rockets fired have been by other groups, Israel says it holds Hamas, which rules Gaza, responsible for maintaining calm there.
On December 27, 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, in response to hundreds of rockets fired into the Jewish state.
The war, which ended in a ceasefire on January 18, 2009, killed 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 13 Israelis, 10 of them soldiers.