Israelis kills two infiltrators

Armed pair scaled wall separating the Gaza Strip

August 26, 2007|By Richard Boudreaux | Richard Boudreaux,Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM -- In a rare breach of Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, two heavily armed Palestinians scaled a 25-foot wall yesterday, opened fire on an army outpost and eluded capture for nearly a half-mile before soldiers tracked them down and killed them, Israeli officials said.

The incident was part of a surge in violent clashes along the Israel-Gaza border and in the West Bank that left 21 Palestinians dead during the week, one of the summer's bloodiest. Four of the dead were noncombatants.

Shrouded by early morning fog, the infiltrators used a ladder to scale the concrete wall and a rope to climb down the Israeli side, said Maj. Tal Lev-Ram, an Israeli army spokesman.

Lev-Ram said the militants attacked an army post at Erez -- the main passageway for people going in and out of Gaza -- and continued into Israel. Ground forces were dispatched and killed the infiltrators after a brief chase. The militants were about 700 yards inside Israeli territory when they were shot, he added.

After a clash near the town of Netiv Haasara, soldiers retrieved the militants' bodies with a robotic crane in case they were rigged with explosives.

There was "an intention to carry out a large attack in Israeli territory," Lev-Ram said. He said the militants were armed "head to toe" with grenades and automatic weapons.

Three militant groups, the Popular Resistance Committees, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, claimed responsibility for the attack in a joint statement. They said that two militants died after a "long battle" and that the fate of a third was unknown.

Lev-Ram, who briefed reporters by telephone, insisted that no more than two militants had crossed into Israel. Police and soldiers nonetheless set up checkpoints and searched both sides of the border with help from spotters in a helicopter.

Two soldiers were lightly wounded in the fighting, the army said.

Israel's 32-mile border with Gaza is protected by radar, concrete walls and electric fences. Palestinian militants have rarely crossed it since Israel withdrew settlers and army bases from the coastal territory two years ago.

But militants from Hamas and other Islamic groups tunneled under the border in June 2006, captured an Israeli soldier at a frontier outpost and spirited him back to Gaza. The soldier is still missing.

The border has grown increasingly tense since Hamas seized control of Gaza two months ago and ousted the rival Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is holding peace talks with Israeli leaders.

Israel, which classifies Hamas as a terrorist group, has stepped up military incursions into the territory this summer to thwart rocket attacks and to search for cross-border tunnels.

On Friday, the army said its troops entered Gaza and killed two gunmen who had opened fire at them across a border fence.

Abbas, whose government operates in the West Bank, warned Wednesday that Israel's heightened military activity raises "plenty of doubt about its real intentions toward the peace process." He called the deaths of Palestinians in those operations a "massacre" that could jeopardize his talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The two leaders are expected to meet this week for the eighth time in eight months. They are working to shape the agenda of a Middle East peace conference that President Bush has called for the fall.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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