Monday, June 26, 2006

Israel Invades Gaza

Israel sent tanks and commando troops into southern Gaza last night after Palestinian militants, believed to be backed by insurgents from Egypt, killed two Israeli soldiers and wounded four others in an ambush on an Israeli army post. The Israeli counter-assault - the first large-scale incursion into Gaza since troops withdrew from the area last August - marked a serious escalation in hostilities. The assault came amid fears a missing Israeli soldier had been taken into Gaza by Palestinian militants, and hours after the ruling Hamas Government foreshadowed progress on an inter-factional deal moving towards recognising Israel. The incursion followed claims of an agreement between militant leaders to wind back the firing of homemade rockets at Israel that have led to dozens of Palestinians being killed in retaliation during recent weeks.Israeli tanks rolled into the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom crossing near the main border gate with Egypt after a number of militants infiltrated Israel and launched a three-wave attack against military posts just after dawn. An anti-tank missile was fired at an armoured personal carrier, and a tank and watchtower were hit in what Israeli military officials described as a "highly professional" operation. The military wing of Hamas, the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades, claimed responsibility, along with an umbrella group of Palestinian militants, the Popular Resistance Committee. Another non-Palestinian group, the Army of Islam, added its name to the operation. The group is not known to have previously operated in the Palestinian territories and is aligned with the global jihad movement. "Our fighters infiltrated the Israeli army military location near so-called Kerem Shalom," said Abu Mujahid, a PRC spokesman. "They succeeded in blowing up several Israeli vehicles and clashed with Israeli soldiers. The battle is still going on. The number of fighters is bigger than at any time. We have some martyrs who fell during the battle."It was a very complicated and well-studied operation. The details are going to shock the Zionists," the statement said. "There are many surprises that are going to be announced about planning and about the process and about the battle itself." At least two militants are believed to have been killed. Israeli officials claimed a tunnel was used to enter Israel and soldiers were last night scouring southern Gaza for an entry point. For the past week, Kerem Shalom and the main passenger terminal into Egypt, the Rafah crossing, have been largely closed because of Israeli security fears. Intelligence chiefs have warned for months of attempts to smuggle militants into Israel through Egypt. A Popular Resistance Committee statement last night gave weight to the theory. "This is an operation of high quality, during which some of the people were parachuted close to the crossing," it said. The Palestinian operation came less than a day after Israeli commandos briefly entered southern Gaza on Saturday to arrest two Hamas members. Last month Israeli naval commandos ambushed Islamic Jihad militants in the north of the strip as they prepared to fire Qassam rockets at Israel. Hamas's military wing claimed yesterday's attack was to avenge the death of one of its leaders in an Israeli air strike carried out earlier this month. Convoys of tanks, jeeps and armoured personnel carriers massed near the Gaza border last night as an advance column entered the strip. An Israeli cabinet meeting in Jerusalem was considering a large-scale land operation, amid calls for calm from some politicians. The meeting was due to consider a document prepared by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails that aims to orchestrate an end to an Israeli and international boycott of the Hamas Government by implicitly recognising the state of Israel. A total of 18 key points have been thrashed out in recent weeks by Hamas ministers and rivals from the Fatah party it defeated in January elections.