An Israeli soldier was reported killed close to the border with the Gaza Strip on Tuesday in what Palestinians said appeared to have been an attack by militants in breach of ceasefire declarations made more than a week ago.
In the same area, a Palestinian was later killed by Israeli fire, local medics said. They said the man was a farmer.
The Israeli military, which maintains censorship on its casualties until next of kin are informed, said a bomb went off close to forces on the Israeli side of the border fence near the Kissufim crossing in the central Gaza Strip.
It declined to comment on casualties but Al Arabiya television said one soldier was killed and three were wounded.
It would be the first Israeli death since Israel ended its 22-day offensive in the coastal enclave on January 18. It came on the eve of a first visit to the region by United States President Barack Obama’s new Middle East envoy George Mitchell. Obama has said Mitchell will pursue peace ”vigorously and consistently”.
Palestinians living near Kissufim crossing told Reuters they had seen a small group of gunmen, numbering two or three, moving toward the border fence early in the morning mist. They heard explosions and gunfire shortly after 8am.
They did not see gunmen return.
A Palestinian official in Gaza said Israeli officials told him that shipments of supplies through crossing points from Israel would be closed for the day.
Neither the ruling Hamas Islamist movement nor any of its allied militant groups made a claim of responsibility. Among the most prominent other groups are Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, both of which had agreed to a ceasefire.
Residents later saw Israeli helicopter gunships in the air and Israeli infantry moving inside the Gaza Strip. About a kilometre to the south of Kissufim, Israeli fire killed the 27-year-old man, Palestinian medics said.
Ten Israeli soldiers were killed during the offensive that began exactly a month ago on December 27. About 1 300 Palestinians were killed in the conflict. Three Israeli civilians also died.
Hamas and Israel declared separate ceasefires and both sides have been negotiating through Egyptian mediators on installing a longer-term truce. Hamas is demanding an easing of Israel’s blockade on the territory, where 1,5-million people live. Israel wants guarantees Hamas cannot renew rocket fire on its towns and is demanding that Hamas free an Israeli soldier it seized in a cross-border raid in June 2006.
”It’s time to return to the negotiating table”
At a meeting with Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Obama said on Monday: ”The cause of peace in the Middle East is important to the United States and our national interests. It’s important to me personally.”
In an interview with Al-Arabiya, the US president said: ”I do believe the moment is ripe for both sides to realise that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people.
”Instead, it’s time to return to the negotiating table.”
Egypt has proposed that a yet to be agreed truce between Israel and Palestinian factions in Gaza begin on February 5, an official of the leftist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) told AFP on Monday.
”The truce will encompass the opening of passages [into Gaza] and will be between Israel and the five main Palestinian factions,” Zaidan said, meaning Fatah, Hamas, the DFLP, the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine and Islamic Jihad.
He added that Egypt has proposed that new talks on reconciling the Fatah faction of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with the Hamas rulers of Gaza would begin on February 22.
The two factions have been at odds since the Islamists ousted forces loyal to Abbas from the coastal strip in June 2007, splitting the Palestinians into two separate entities, with the president’s writ effectively confined to the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Hamas has said it is mulling an Israeli proposal for an 18-month renewable ceasefire.
Egypt has refused to permanently open its Rafah border crossing with Gaza in the absence of representatives of Abbas at the crossing. — Reuters and Sapa