Israeli armored forces backed by aircraft thrust into the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday, killing five Palestinians a day before Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were to begin laying the groundwork for peace talks. A sixth Palestinian was killed in an airstrike.
Israeli army officials described the operation as a routine action against Gaza-based militants who fire rockets across the border into southern Israel. Palestinian officials said the incursion could undermine the talks before they start.
Palestinian witnesses said 30 armored vehicles moved into the area between the towns of Khan Yunis and Rafah. But an Israeli army spokesman said “a few” tanks took part. He did not provide details.
Two Islamic Jihad militants and an unidentified man died when Israeli fire struck a house in southern Gaza, Palestinian officials said. A member of Hamas’ military wing died in another clash, and a commander of the Popular Resistance Committees was killed later in the day. Four Israeli soldiers sustained minor injuries.
In a separate encounter, an Israeli airstrike killed an Islamic Jihad fighter in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun.
Palestinians said Israeli troops had taken positions two miles inside Gaza, which would be the military’s deepest penetration since the Islamic militant group Hamas took sole control of the coastal strip in June. However, the Israeli army spokesman said troops moved less than a mile into Gaza.
Israel has carried out limited incursions and numerous airstrikes along the edges of Gaza, from which militants have fired more than 2,000 rockets and mortar rounds into Israel since Jan. 1. Defense officials in Israel drew up plans to reduce the flow of Israeli-generated electricity into Gaza in response to the persistent rocket attacks, but they held off this month after the nation’s Supreme Court asked for a fuller explanation of how the action would avoid harming civilians.
Hawkish Israeli politicians have urged a broad military offensive to target rocket teams and a stockpile of smuggled arms that Israeli intelligence officials say are increasingly potent and of longer range.
But troops could get bogged down in bloody urban fighting, and a major offensive might torpedo the embryonic peace effort.
Prodded into talks by the Bush administration, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have vowed to try to reach a peace agreement by the end of 2008. Abbas could lose backing among Palestinians for continued talks if Israel moves into Gaza with great force.
Some Israeli analysts, though, have suggested that only Israel is powerful enough to topple the Hamas forces that have run Gaza since routing Abbas’ Fatah faction in fighting over the summer.
That victory in effect left Palestinians ruled by rival governments: Hamas in Gaza and a Cabinet loyal to Abbas in the West Bank. Israel holds Hamas ultimately responsible for the rocket salvos, even though other groups claim responsibility.
Abbas spokesman Nabil abu Rudaineh said Israel’s actions Tuesday were aimed at “thwarting and obstructing” the planned peace talks.
Negotiation teams led by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Korei are to meet at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem today in a session billed as the formal start of negotiations after the U.S.-sponsored peace conference last month in Annapolis, Md.
However, today’s meeting is expected to be devoted mainly to setting up a framework and procedures for talks, rather than bargaining over issues at the center of the conflict.
President Bush played host to Olmert and Abbas as part of a gathering of regional officials aimed at reviving peace talks for the first time since 2001.
Special correspondent Abu Alouf reported from Gaza City and Times staff writer Ellingwood from Jerusalem.