GAZA (Reuters) - About 30 Israeli tanks and armoured vehicles pushed into the Hamas-run Gaza Strip on Tuesday, sparking clashes with Palestinians in which five militants were killed, medics and militant groups said.
Residents said the raid, a day before Israel and Palestinians are due to hold their first talks since relaunching a U.S.-backed peace push, was the largest in their area since Israel pulled troops and settlers out of the territory in 2005.
Four Islamic Jihad gunmen were killed in clashes with Israeli ground forces and an air strike killed a local commander from the Popular Resistance Committees, a coalition of militant groups, medics and residents said.
Fifteen Palestinians, many of them gunmen, were also wounded in the incursion, which a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas described as a “heinous crime” that undermined the peace process.
An Israeli army spokeswoman played down the significance of the incursion near the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, saying about 10 tanks and armoured vehicles entered the territory as part of a routine operation against Palestinian militants.
She said two Israeli soldiers were slightly injured.
The Israeli military often attacks militants in the coastal territory to try to stop them firing rockets and mortar bombs into southern Israel and has intensified the raids since last month’s Annapolis peace conference.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a security conference the army “would not stop” until it had removed the threat of rocket fire and would act “in the appropriate dose at the right time and without exaggerating”.
On Wednesday, negotiators are due to hold their first formal talks since Annapolis, where Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to try to broker a deal on Palestinian statehood by the end of 2008.
Many observers say that time scale is too ambitious, given major differences on key issues and Hamas’s control of Gaza, which Islamist group Hamas seized in June after clashes with Abbas’s secular Fatah faction.
The negotiations suffered their first setback last week when Israel said it planned to build new homes on occupied land, angering Palestinians and drawing rare U.S. censure.
Palestinian negotiators said on Tuesday they would still attend this week’s talks despite some calls within the leadership for a boycott over the building plan, and would focus on demanding an Israeli settlement freeze.
Israel has pledged to freeze settlement activity under a 2003 peace “road map” but argues the new homes are not illegal because they are planned for land it annexed when it redrew Jerusalem’s boundaries, a move not recognised internationally.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Monday she hoped the building plan would not “cloud” peace talks. Some officials had said Abbas and Olmert were themselves likely to meet on Wednesday but an Israeli government spokesman said on Tuesday the two leaders would not be present.
Abbas’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said the raids “deepened suspicions” about Israel’s commitment to peace. An Israeli government spokesman said the incursion was part of Israel’s “ongoing battle against Palestinian terrorism” in Gaza.
An army spokesman said the forces withdrew late on Tuesday.
Earlier, an Israeli air strike killed a militant who was trying to launch rockets from the northern Gaza Strip and another died while handling a bomb in the occupied West Bank.
Additional reporting by Wafa Amr in Ramallah and Joseph Nasr and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Writing by Rebecca Harrison; Editing by Keith Weir