ISRAELI TROOPS KILLED eight Palestinian fighters in clashes in the Gaza Strip on Saturday, including seven from the Hamas group, amid a surge in violence in the coastal territory.
In the past three days, 21 Palestinians have been killed in fighting in Gaza, the majority of them fighters, and two dozen have been wounded.
Since Israel stepped up its offensive in Gaza after fighters captured a soldier in June, at least 250 Palestinians have been killed, around half of them civilians. Israel says the offensive is designed to track down the captured soldier and to stop fighters firing rockets into Israel. Rocket attacks have increased in recent days.
The latest fighter killed was from the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a wing of President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fateh movement. His car was struck by a missile in an Israeli air strike, emergency workers said.
A local commander of the group who was in the car was critically wounded and two passersby were also hurt. Four Hamas fighters were killed when a house they were hiding in was hit by a series of Israeli missiles, security sources said. A fifth later died of his wounds. Three others were killed in separate raids.
The Israeli military confirmed it had carried out the attacks, including the air strike.
A column of Israeli tanks backed by attack helicopters moved into an area east of the town of Jabalya, outside Gaza City, overnight, part of what Israel has dubbed operation “Rain Man”.
Witnesses said about two dozen tanks moved into the areas of Beit Lahiya and the industrial zone of Beit Hanoun, two northern Gaza towns, after darkness fell on Saturday. A military spokeswoman said the deployment was part of an operation to halt rocket fire at Israel.
Vows of revenge
A spokesman for Hamas’ military wing issued a statement vowing “we will bombard and strike everywhere” in response to Israel’s attacks in Gaza.
“Our reaction will be strong,” spokesman Abu Ubaida said.
Israeli media reported that Defence Minister Amir Peretz had instructed the military to prevent rocket attacks from Gaza on towns in southern Israel.
Peretz lives in Sderot, a town near Gaza hit frequently by rockets in the past several years, including since Israel’s pullout of troops and more than 8,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza last year after 38 years of occupation.
Three Israelis were wounded by rocket attacks on Friday, a military spokeswoman said.
The recent fighting also comes amid deepening divisions among Palestinians, with forces from Hamas, which controls the Palestinian government, clashing with rivals loyal to Fateh.
Hamas defeated Fateh in elections in January this year and there has been a power struggle between the two groups since.
Weeks of talks to form a unity government, and potentially put an end to the in-fighting, have so far failed to bear fruit.
Attempts to organise a first formal meeting between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also appear to have been put on hold, postponing efforts to revive peace talks.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s intelligence chief held talks Saturday with Hamas’ exiled political leader in Damascus on forming a Palestinian unity government and swapping prisoners for the captured Israeli soldier, a Hamas official said.
Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal met with Omar Suleiman about containing the conflict between the ruling Hamas and Fateh party, Hamas official Osama Hamdan said in a telephone interview from Lebanon.
The talks came amid tension that has led to violent street clashes in the Palestinian territories between Hamas and its rival Fateh.
Fatehs leader, Abbas, has advocated recognising Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state on parts of the West Bank and Gaza.
Hamas has refused, and talks over forming a power-sharing government have stalled over the issue.
On Friday, Mishaal said Hamas would not recognise Israel, but it wants to join a national unity government with Abbas’ rival Fateh faction.
He also said Hamas was ready to swap captured Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit for Palestinian prisoners.
Also Saturday, Palestinian Interior Minister Said Siyam and his Syrian counterpart Gen. Bassam Abdul-Majid met in Damascus to discuss the Palestinian situation. Farouk Qaddoumi, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s political wing, also met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, the official Syrian news agency, SANA, reported.
While the United States and the EU regard Hamas as a terrorist organisation, Syria views it as a group fighting Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
Recognition of Israel is a major demand by the US and EU for lifting sanctions on Hamas, which were imposed after Hamas defeated Fateh in the January legislative elections.
A recent Qatari endeavor to mediate a reconciliation based on the formation of a national unity government also ended in failure because of Hamas’ refusal to recognise Israel.