Israeli troops, backed by helicopter gunships, killed two gunmen near the border fence that separates Israel from the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian health official said.
An army spokeswoman, speaking today on condition of anonymity by regulation, confirmed the clash and said the Palestinians were laying mines along the fence.
Confrontations between the Israeli army and Gaza militants have recently escalated. At least seven Palestinians have been killed since Dec. 19 in clashes or airstrikes and more than 29 mortar shells and rockets were fired from Gaza at Israel, injuring at least two people. The upturn comes as Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations remained stalled and reconciliation talks between the Islamic Hamas movement that controls the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority that runs the West Bank are frozen.
“I hope that Hamas will stop the rocket fire,” Israeli Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said on Army Radio. “We are not interested in an escalation but we have no choice other than to respond.”
Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the military wing of Hamas, said at a press conference yesterday that “if Israel wants to test our response, it will see that it will be harsh. We advise the enemy not to commit this stupidity.”
The militants killed in the overnight clash were from the Islamic Jihad movement, Adham Abu Selmeya, spokesman for Hamas’s Health Ministry emergency services, said in a phone interview today.
Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the European Union, the U.S., and Israel, seized control of Gaza in 2007, ending its partnership government with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after winning parliamentary elections a year earlier.
Israel launched a three-week military initiative on Gaza that ended on Jan. 18, 2009 in what it said was a bid to stop rocket fire on its southern towns and cities. A United Nations panel has accused both Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes during the conflict. More than 1,100 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the fighting.