Israel Defense Forces troops yesterday killed a Hamas gunman and wounded two others in the first armed clash in the Gaza Strip since a cease-fire was declared there in June. One IDF soldier was lightly wounded in the exchange of fire.
An Israeli army spokeswoman said troops had entered the territory to destroy a tunnel that Gaza militants had dug under the border in order to try to abduct soldiers. The unusually large incursion was approved by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, defense officials said.
The Shin Bet security service and IDF Military Intelligence provided the intelligence, they added. According to reports, the Hamas militants had dug a 250-meter-long tunnel near the Kissufim Crossing in the center of the Gaza Strip.
Palestinians near the al-Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza reported seeing Israeli soldiers about 300 meters inside the coastal strip. They also reported hearing IDF vehicles fire from the Israeli side of the border fence and the buzz of unmanned drones overhead.
The intelligence report about the tunnel led decision-makers to view it as a "ticking bomb," army sources said, prompting them to order the raid despite the cease-fire. This could mean that Hamas had plans to enter Israel and abduct a soldier or a civilian, as it did in kidnapping Gilad Shalit more than two years ago from a military post near the southern Gaza Strip.
Palestinian sources said a house east of Deir al-Balah, belonging to the Abu Hamam family, was the target of the incursion. The IDF intelligence report said the tunnel had been dug from inside the building in order to avoid detection.
According to army sources, the scale of the incursion was limited, and involved less than one battalion. The soldiers, apparently from an elite unit, drove a military bulldozer into the Gaza Strip. They surrounded the house around 9 P.M., and called on the occupants to step outside.
Eyewitnesses said the army also employed helicopter gunships, which provided the troops with aerial support. Residents said that one of the Israeli drones fired a missile.
The IDF reported that a large explosion occurred while the troops were waiting for the tenants to come out. One officer said the explosion could have come from a bomb Hamas militants might have planted there in advance.
The wounded IDF soldier, who was shot in his leg, was treated at the scene by a paramedic and taken back to Israeli territory.
At around the same time as the gunfight, six mortar shells were reportedly fired at Israel from Gaza, in yet another violation of the cease-fire.
"Qassam fighters are engaging in violent armed clashes with a Zionist (Israeli) force that raided east of central Gaza Strip," a Hamas statement said.
Regarding the raid's possible ramifications on the fragile cease-fire, one IDF officer told Haaretz: "There was a risk of an abduction which might have been carried out very soon. We did not intend to damage the cease-fire, to which the State of Israel is still committed. However, this raid caused less damage to the cease-fire than another Hamas abduction would have."
Palestinian medical workers said three gunmen were wounded by shrapnel from the Israeli missile.
Since the cease-fire, the IDF has launched frequent raids across the fence, albeit smaller in scale. The IDF is apparently interested in keeping these incursions low-profile, and they receive little attention in the Israeli media. Additionally, raids tend to be limited to addressing "immediate threats," as defined by the IDF.