Israeli tanks and bulldozers crossed into the Gaza Strip on Friday after the Jewish state warned it would retaliate against Hamas for a deadly explosion of violence earlier this week.
Ten tanks and two armoured bulldozers entered 1km into Gaza, west of the Bureij refugee camp, drawing heavy fire from militants, Palestinian security sources said.
Two Palestinian teenagers were wounded in clashes, Gaza medics said.
An Israeli army spokesperson confirmed forces were operating in the Hamas-run territory and had come under gun and mortar fire. She said Israeli forces carried out an air strike in the same area.
Witnesses did not immediately report any casualties from the air raid.
Hours earlier, two Hamas militants were killed in another air strike in southern Gaza.
Israel has vowed to ”settle the score” with the Islamist group for a border attack that killed two Israeli civilians on Wednesday, which followed a month of relative calm in and around Gaza.
While Hamas has not claimed responsibility for that attack, which three other groups said they carried out, Israel blames the Islamist group because it controls Gaza, where it ousted forces loyal to moderate President Mahmoud Abbas in June.
”Hamas today runs the Gaza Strip, and this organisation and all its members bear responsibility for the incessant terror and it will have to bear the inevitable price for its actions,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a rally of his Kadima party near Tel Aviv late on Thursday.
”I promise you that the response against Hamas will be such that Hamas will be no longer able to act against Israeli citizens,” he said.
Hamas said such statements clearly showed that Israel was preparing the ground for a new military operation against Gaza.
Gaza militants on Wednesday breached the border with Israel under cover of mortar fire, killing two Israeli contractors at the Nahal Oz oil terminal that provides the Palestinian territory with its fuel supplies. On the Palestinian side, four civilians and three fighters were killed during and immediately after the attack.
Israel said it temporarily shut down the terminal, but insisted it would continue providing minimal fuel supplies to the Palestinian territory that has been under a crippling blockade for months.
While Hamas did not claim the border raid, its armed wing said it fired three homemade rockets at the crossing after the battle, the first time it has claimed such an attack on Israel since the beginning of March.
The two sides had refrained from engaging in any major attacks for several weeks following a massive Israeli military assault on Gaza launched in late February that killed 130 Palestinians and five Israelis.
But Hamas this week threatened to storm Gaza’s borders in a repeat of a breach in January that sent hundreds of thousands of weary Palestinians streaming into Egypt to stock up on goods they can’t get at home because of a tight Israeli-imposed embargo.
Egypt has since brought in extra troops to reinforce its border with Gaza.
Trucks headed for the border were being stopped at the Suez Canal in a bid to remove the economic incentive for Palestinians to break out of Gaza, an Egyptian security official said.
While violence threatened to erupt again in Gaza, Olmert reiterated that peace talks with Abbas could lead to a historic peace deal this year, but said he did not believe it could be implemented at this stage.
”The first step of offering hope to us and the Palestinians can and should be done, and we will do every effort to succeed this year,” he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday that a Moscow peace conference would give a ”second wind” to peace efforts in the region. — Sapa-AFP