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Deadly bombing, Israeli airstrike shake Gaza truce

Palestinian militants detonated a bomb next to an Israeli army patrol along the border with Gaza on Tuesday, killing a soldier and straining cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

world Updated: Jan 28, 2009 01:12 IST

Palestinian militants detonated a bomb next to an Israeli army patrol along the border with Gaza on Tuesday, killing a soldier and straining cease-fire between Israel and Hamas on the eve of a visit by President Barack Obama's new Mideast envoy. The blast, the first major breach of the informal weeklong truce, also wounded three soldiers and triggered a brief battle when Israeli soldiers briefly crossed the border in search of the attackers. Later, Hamas said one of its militants was wounded in an Israeli airstrike.

The violence jolted the calm that has largely prevailed since Israel ended a devastating three-week offensive on Jan. 17. Since withdrawing its troops, Israel has threatened to retaliate hard for any violations of the truce.

Israeli Defense Minister, Ehud Barak called an urgent meeting of Israel's top defense officers after the bombing. "We will respond, but there is no point in elaborating," Barak said, shortly before the airstrike. Barak talked with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert after the meeting, but no details of the discussion were released. The Israeli military dismissed earlier reports that the explosive might have been an old land mine triggered accidentally. The military said it had determined that the bomb was activated by militants, but it would not give details.

The blast came a day before the new U.S. Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, was due in Israel. It underscored the difficulty President Barack Obama faces as he tries to get Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts back on track.

Later Tuesday, Palestinians said a tank shell hit a house near the border in southern Gaza. There were no reports of casualties. The military had no immediate comment.

The incident came as Gazans struggle to resume normal life after the fighting, and as international donors discuss how best to help the territory rebuild. Gaza's Hamas leader said Tuesday the group which is boycotted as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union would not try to claim any of the reconstruction funds, an announcement that appeared aimed at clearing the way for money to start flowing.

The announcement from Ismail Haniyeh, who remains in hiding because of fears he could be assassinated by Israel, appeared directed at donors who concerned their funds could end up in Hamas' hands.

"Our aim now is to ease the suffering of our people and to remove the aftermath of the aggression in Gaza," the statement said. "Therefore we emphasize that we are not concerned to receive the money for rebuilding Gaza and we are not seeking that." After Tuesday's bomb blast, heavy gunfire was heard along the border in central Gaza and Israeli helicopters hovered in the air firing machine gun bursts, Palestinian witnesses said. An Israeli jet set off a loud sonic boom over Gaza City not long afterward, possibly as a warning.

Hamas said an airstrike wounded one of its militants as he rode a motorcycle in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis. Residents said Israeli tanks and bulldozers have also entered the area where the roadside bombing took place and were tearing up some vacant land _ apparently to prevent it from being used to stage attacks. The Israeli military said the bomb targeted an Israeli patrol near the border community of Kissufim. There was no claim of responsibility.

Not long after the bombing, a 27-year-old Gaza farmer was killed by Israeli gunfire along the border several miles (kilometers) away, according to Dr. Moaiya Hassanain of Gaza's Health Ministry. Two other Palestinians were wounded. The military had no comment, and it was unclear if the two incidents were related.

Israel closed its crossings into Gaza to humanitarian aid traffic after briefly opening them Tuesday morning. Gaza border official Raed Fattouh said Israeli officials informed him the closure was due to the attack.

Israel and Gaza militants have been holding their fire since Israel ended its offensive, which was aimed at halting rocket fire from the territory. Israel announced a unilateral cease-fire on Jan. 17, and that was followed by a similar announcement from Gaza militants.

In the days immediately following the cease-fire there was shelling by Israeli gunboats and some gunfire along the border _ including the killing of two men Palestinian officials identified as farmers _ but there were no serious clashes until Tuesday.