JERUSALEM -- Israel made its first military incursion deep into the Gaza Strip since withdrawing from the territory nine months ago, sending special forces backed by a helicopter gunship to ambush a squad of rocket-firing Palestinian militants yesterday.
Four Palestinians were killed and about six others wounded in an intense pre-dawn exchange of fire that lasted more than an hour and occurred nearly two miles inside Gaza.
At least three of those killed were members of a cell from the militant group Islamic Jihad, the Israeli army and Palestinian medical officials said. A fourth fatality was a member of the Palestinian security forces, according to Palestinian security officials.
The confrontation marked a change in tactics for the Israeli military, which has been frustrated in recent months by an inability to quell the firing of rockets in the direction of Israeli cities and towns by Palestinian militants.
Although the crude projectiles rarely cause casualties on the Israeli side, Israel regards the near-daily barrage as a strategic threat - particularly because Islamic Jihad has recently obtained more sophisticated rockets that put Israeli coastal communities such as Ashkelon within range of Gaza.
The raid drew an angry reaction from Palestinian officials, including moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Palestinians fear that Israel will, by increments, reoccupy Gaza, which was relinquished last August by the Israelis' then-prime minister, Ariel Sharon.
For the past two months, Israel has directed concerted artillery fire at a area of northern Gaza that the militants use as a launching ground. But more often than not, Palestinian civilians, not those who fire the rockets, are killed and injured by the cross-border shelling.
The Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights said it was "gravely concerned" over the incident, saying it showed that the Israeli army "has not withdrawn from the Gaza Strip, but only redeployed around it."
Israel defended the incursion as a necessary measure.