The Israel Navy opened fire on an armed squad of five Palestinians wearing diving suits and apparently on their way to attack Israeli targets, the Israel Defense Forces said Monday morning.
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An army source told Haaretz that at about 4:30 A.M., naval commandos identified and fired on a boat carrying five armed Palestinians heading north from waters off the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip.
Gaza sources reported that four Palestinians were killed. Hamas later confirmed the deaths and said a fifth Palestinian was missing - although conflicting reports from Gaza claimed at least two of the five-member squad survived.
Four bodies were retrieved and taken to a hospital in central Gaza, said Moawiya Hassanain, a Palestinian health official. Two of the dead had suffered multiple gunshots to the head, Hassanain said.
Other Palestinian sources told Haaretz that the miltants were members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an extremist offshoot of the Fatah faction led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The militants were training for a rare attempt at a seaborne attack on Israel when they encountered Israeli forces, the sources said.
The IDF said there were no Israeli casualties.
An unnamed military official told Army Radio that the operation had been a boost for the Navy's elite commando unit, Shayetet 13, which has come under international scrutiny since killing nine activists in a raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla a week ago.
"This will be a shot in the arm for the commandos after the hard week they have been through," the official said.
Two weeks ago, IDF troops near the Gaza border escaped unharmed after a bomb planted by Palestinian militants exploded close to the border fence.
That bombing came a day after two mortar shells fired by Palestinian militants in Gaza struck near the city of Ashkelon, without any casualties or damages reported.
In January a number of barrels packed with explosives were washed ashore in Israel after apparently being launched from Gaza. The Gaza-based militant group Islamic Jihad later claimed responsibility for launching the 'bomb barrels', none of which exploded.
Also on Monday morning, an Israeli aircraft fired a missile at a target in the northern Gaza Strip, killing one, Palestinian sources said.