NAHAL OZ, Israel, (Reuters) – Palestinian militants on Wednesday attacked an Israeli-controlled border crossing where fuel is piped into the Gaza Strip, killing at least two Israeli civilians, the Israeli army said.
Two Palestinian militants and a civilian were killed by Israeli tank shells that hit a building near the Nahal Oz terminal, Palestinian medics said. The Israeli army said it fired at gunmen.
Earlier, in a separate incident, an Israeli soldier and a Hamas militant were killed in clashes in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army and Palestinian medical staff said.
Hamas had warned on Tuesday of an “explosion” in the territory if Israel continued its economic blockade. Israel tightened its cordon after Hamas Islamists violently took over the Gaza Strip in June.
Fighters from three movements, not including Hamas, infiltrated the Nahal Oz crossing, said a spokesman for one of the groups, the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), describing the operation as an attempt to abduct soldiers. “Terrorists entered Nahal Oz and the fuel depot. They shot at civilians inside. There are two Israelis dead and two wounded,” an Israeli army spokeswoman said.
Hamas’s armed wing said it pounded the area with mortar bombs and heavy machinegun fire during the operation, which the PRC dubbed “Breaking Zionist Arrogance”.
In addition to the PRC, Islamic Jihad and the Mujahideen Brigades, which is affiliated with President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, claimed responsibility for raiding Nahal Oz. “The target was a Zionist army base and the aim was to abduct soldiers to swap them for Palestinian prisoners,” said the PRC spokesman, Abu Mujahed.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said the attack on a fuel terminal that supplies Gaza with its energy needs “shows the blatant disregard the terrorists have for the well-being of the people of Gaza”.
All the fuel pumped into the Gaza Strip passes through Nahal Oz. Western diplomats said the attack occurred after the completion of the latest delivery of EU-funded fuel to the territory’s main power plant.
Israel has cut back on some fuel supplies to the Gaza Strip as part of its sanctions against Hamas.
Arye Mekel, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said after the attack that Israel would continue to provide the supplies necessary to avoid a humanitarian crisis “but the difficulty is obvious”. It was not immediately clear how much damage, if any, was done to the fuel depot at the crossing.
Even if no serious damage was caused, the raid could prompt Israel to block, on security grounds, future deliveries and force the power plant to shut down.
A European official said the EU did not expect to be able to restart its fuel deliveries to the power plan before Sunday, at the earliest. “The plant has enough fuel on hand to last eight to nine days,” the official said.
Spokesmen for militant groups said attackers withdrew back into the Gaza Strip, under fire from pursuing Israeli helicopters, and that two Palestinians in a car hit from the air were wounded.
The army said the vehicle had been waiting to pick up gunmen who took part in the raid.