2 Palestinians Held in Israel's First Arrest Raid in Gaza Since Pullout

Times Staff Writer

Israeli commandos seized two Palestinians suspected of being Hamas militants during a predawn operation Saturday that was the army's first arrest raid in the Gaza Strip since Israel's withdrawal nearly a year ago.

The arrests represented a new front in Israel's battle against Gaza militants, a cross-border campaign dominated so far by artillery fire and airstrikes targeting fighters who launch homemade Kassam rockets into southern Israel.

But Israel's methods have proved especially problematic in the wake of air attacks that have killed 14 civilians in Gaza during the last two weeks. And Israel has not resumed its shelling since an explosion killed eight Palestinian civilians on a beach in the northern Gaza Strip. The military says an internal investigation shows it was not responsible for the June 9 blast, although skeptical human rights groups have called for an independent inquiry.

An Israeli army spokeswoman said the two Palestinian men, arrested at a house near Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, were in the "final stages of planning a large-scale terror attack" in coming days.

Hamas denied that the men were members. They were identified by neighbors as brothers Osama Muamar, 31, a medical student who returned from Sudan last week, and Mustafa, a 20-year-old university student in Gaza.

Early today, Israeli troops fought militants along the southern Gaza border after coming under attack by antitank rockets and gunfire. The military said some soldiers were wounded; at least three militants were reported killed, Israel Radio said.

Militants from the Popular Resistance Committees said they were joined by fighters from Hamas and another group, the Islamic Army, in carrying out the attack at the Kerem Shalom crossing. The crossing was closed for several days last week after Israel said it received warnings of a possible attack.

Since pulling out of the Gaza Strip last summer after a 38-year presence, Israeli troops have on occasion moved a short distance across the border fence to clear mines laid by Palestinians.

Last month, Israeli forces staged their first major incursion when special forces acted against a Palestinian rocket squad in the northern end of the strip. Three members of Islamic Jihad and a fourth man, a member of the Palestinian security forces, were killed.

Israeli military planners have been vexed by the Kassams, which fall regularly in and near the town of Sderot. Although the crude projectiles usually drop harmlessly into open fields, often without making it into Israel, five Sderot residents have been killed by rocket fire since 2004. No one has died since the Israeli pullout.

Israel has countered in recent months by firing thousands of artillery rounds into open areas of the northern Gaza Strip from which most of the Kassams have been launched. But the shelling has more often killed or wounded civilians than militants, and has yet to halt the rocket attacks.

The air force also has intensified its missile strikes in Gaza, killing at least 70 militants this year, according to Israeli media reports, but also hitting bystanders. Last week, five Palestinians, including three children, died in a pair of airstrikes. A week earlier, an air attack that killed two militants left nine civilians dead.

Israel has long accused Palestinian authorities of doing little to stem the cross-border Kassam attacks. Now the Palestinian Authority government is led by Hamas, which Israeli authorities say is helping other groups launch rockets.

Stepped-up barrages of Kassams this month, partly in retaliation for the beach explosion, have sparked protests in Sderot and prompted right-wing Israeli politicians to call for wider military actions, including a ground offensive.

In other developments Saturday, Hamas and the rival Fatah movement continued talks over a proposal for a shared political program aimed at ending sometimes deadly factional clashes.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah member, met in Gaza City with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a member of Hamas, in an attempt to iron out lingering differences over the proposed program, which is based on a document drawn up by prominent Palestinians jailed in Israel. That document, calling for a Palestinian state along pre-1967 borders, would implicitly recognize Israel. Hamas rejects Israel's right to exist.

Special correspondent Rushdie abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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