Ibrahim Barzak / Associated Press – 2008-11-19 23:00:36
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (November 19, 2008) — Israeli tanks pushed into the southern Gaza Strip Tuesday, drawing mortar fire from Palestinian militants and intensifying violence that has chipped away at a tenuous cease-fire.
Israel and Gaza’s ruling Islamic militant Hamas movement have been trading fire for two weeks after nearly five months of relative quiet. The violence comes as the Egyptian-negotiated truce that began June 19 is due to expire next month, and both sides might be trying to dictate more favorable terms in anticipation of the agreement’s renewal.
Backed by a bulldozer and military jeep, the tanks rumbled about a quarter-mile into the tiny seaside strip, residents and Gaza security officials said. Residents said they leveled lands along the border east of the city of Rafah near the Egypt border.
The Israeli military described the activity as “a routine operation to uncover explosive devices.” Militant groups said they fired mortar rounds and rockets at the tanks, which did not return fire. The military withdrew from the area by early afternoon, according to Gaza officials. There were no casualties on either side.
It was the first ground action in a week. At least 17 militants have been killed since the truce began unraveling, and by the military’s count, militants have fired more than 140 rockets and mortar shells at Israel.
Both Israel and Hamas leaders have said they hoped the Egyptian-brokered truce could be preserved. But a small, Hamas-allied group said they consider the truce to have broken down, and Israel has threatened to hit hard if the rocket fire persists.
On Tuesday, a spokesman for the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, Ihab al-Ghussein, accused Israel of subverting the truce, while another top Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, said he wanted to maintain it, as long as crossings into Gaza were reopened.
As violence has escalated, Israel has clamped down further on already-tight border crossings, drastically restricting vital supplies to the seaside territory, which is home to 1.4 million people.
The head of the U.N. aid agency for Palestinian refugees, Karen AbuZayd, Tuesday called on Israel to end the blockade. She said the agency’s food warehouse is empty.
The top human rights official for the United Nations, Navi Pillay, also pushed for an end to the blockade, which she said breaches international and humanitarian law.
Aharon Leshno-Yaar, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, rejected Pillay’s statement that Israel has cut off essential supplies, saying that water and electricity are still flowing and 33 trucks loaded with supplies arrived in Gaza on Monday. More are waiting to enter “as soon as Hamas ends its violent attacks,” he said in Geneva.
Late Tuesday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak decided to keep the crossings closed again today because of the continuing rocket fire.
Before the truce, militants barraged Israel with near-daily rocket attacks, provoking sometimes harsh military retaliation that killed hundreds of Palestinians, including civilians.
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