GAZA CITY, Jan 28 – An Israeli soldier and a Palestinian were killed in the deadliest flare-up of Gaza violence since the ceasefire, casting a shadow over the new US peace envoy’s maiden trip to the region.,
Israeli soldiers moved into the Gaza Strip and the military launched an air strike shortly after a soldier on the Israeli side of the border was killed in a bomb blast.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak warned that Israel would strike back after the blast, which came 10 days after his government and Hamas declared mutual ceasefires after a deadly 22-day onslaught on Gaza.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed that Israel would hit back harder and that the army was "preparing its response."
"The army’s reaction today was only operational. This was not the response to the killing of a soldier and wounding of three others. Israel’s response shall come," a senior government official quoted Olmert as saying.
An Israeli warplane bombed Wednesday tunnels under the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt that are used by militants to smuggle weapons, witnesses said. No one was reported injured.
Tuesday’s attack near the Kissufim border crossing also severely wounded an officer, and two other soldiers lightly, an army spokesman said.
A 24-year-old Palestinian, Anwar Al-Dreim, was killed by Israeli fire shortly afterwards and a Hamas fighter and two other Palestinians were wounded in an air strike, also in the southern Gaza Strip, medics said.
Witnesses also reported that Israeli soldiers crossed into southern Gaza and fired towards a farmhouse, and conducted another incursion further north, taking up positions on rooftops while tanks fired at buildings.
The incidents marked the most serious violence since Israel and Hamas declared unilateral ceasefires on January 18, ending the Jewish state’s war on the Islamist stronghold.
They came as US President Barack Obama’s new Middle East envoy George Mitchell headed to the region for his first visit, just two weeks before Israel goes to the polls in an election expected to bring the right-wing to power.
Obama instructed Mitchell, who played a prominent role in the Northern Ireland peace process, to "engage vigorously" to achieve real progress between Israel and the Palestinians.
"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," Obama said in an interview with pan-Arab satellite television Al-Arabiya. "Instead, it’s time to return to the negotiating table."
Mitchell started his mission in Egypt, a regional US ally which has played a central role in efforts to forge the fragile ceasefires in Gaza into a lasting truce.
Mitchell met Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Abul Gheit, and Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, State Department acting spokesman Robert Wood told reporters in Washington.
"The meetings, as they were described to me, were productive," said Wood.
Egypt has been holding separate talks with Israeli and Hamas officials, as well as with representatives of other Palestinian militant groups.
Abul Gheit said the talks have "evolved positively," and that a "permanent" Gaza truce could be agreed in the first week of February.
He said such a ceasefire would lead to the reopening of crossing points into Gaza, where most of the 1.5 million population depend on outside aid but have been suffering under a crippling Israeli blockade.
Hamas, which has said it is mulling an Israeli proposal for an 18-month renewable ceasefire, insists that Israel and Egypt open their crossing points into Gaza.
Israel has said it will not do so unless Hamas frees a soldier seized by militants in a cross-border raid in June 2006, while Egypt has refused to permanently open its Rafah crossing in the absence of representatives of moderate Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas at the border.
UN humanitarian chief John Holmes appealed Tuesday to Israel to re-open border crossings into the besieged Gaza Strip to allow delivery of badly needed relief aid in the wake of the devastating 22-day conflict.
Abul Gheit also said that inter-Palestinian dialogue could resume in the third week of February.
Abbas’s Fatah faction and Hamas 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.
Abul Gheit also said that if everything goes according to plan, a donors’ conference on Gaza reconstruction could be held in Cairo "probably" on February 28.
Israel’s war in Gaza launched on December 27 in response to militant rocket and mortar fire killed more than 1,300 people, more than half of them civilians, and wounded more than 5,400, according to Gaza medics.
On the Israeli side, three civilians and 10 soldiers were killed in combat and by rocket fire.