IDF Strikes North Gaza After Rocket Fire, Two Palestinians Killed

Hamas claims casualties in Beit Hanoun as its own; attack follows earlier overnight strike on Jabalya.

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Israeli forces killed two Palestinian militants during an incursion in the northern Gaza Strip on Monday that touched off clashes with gunmen from the governing Hamas movement, local officials said.

The Israel Defense Forces struck at least two targets in the northern Strip, in Beit Hanoun and Jabalya, after rockets exploded near the border fence between Gaza and the western Negev.

The soldiers attacked a rocket-launching cell in Beit Hanoun, apparently in a Hamas training camp. Hamas claimed both of the dead gunmen as its own, but denied the IDF's claim that the militants were preparing fire again at Israeli territory. Two Hamas fighters were wounded.

Four others were wounded in the strike on Jabalya earlier Monday morning.

Hamas called the act a "crime" and vowed to respond.

Israel's military said the air force struck a Palestinian rocket crew after "a routine [army] patrol in the area" came under mortar attack. No casualties or damage were reported among the soldiers.

Though Islamist Hamas is hostile to Israel, it has often sought to stay out of recent cross-border confrontations as it shores up its Gaza rule in the face of more radical challengers and reaches out to potential Arab allies abroad.

The clashes came just a day before the emir of pro-Western Qatar was to become the first head of state to enter the blockaded Palestinian enclave, a high-profile visit opening a crack in Hamas's diplomatic isolation.

It has been a period of escalation on Israel's southern border with Gaza. Two weeks ago, Gaza militants fired a rocket toward Israel Air Force helicopter, marking the first time that the Palestinians in Gaza had fired an anti-aircraft missile at an IAF craft.

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz told reporters on Monday: "In the face of challenges, record preparedness and uncompromising sharpness and alertness is required of us, absolute alertness to the possibility that any day or any hour the regional turmoil can turn into a conflict here. Technological development means we must prepare for the new arena of combat."

A Palestinian trying to extinguish a fire after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Saturday, March 10, 2012. Credit: AP

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