GAZA CITY -- Palestinian militants dug a tunnel under an Israeli army outpost in the heart of Gaza and exploded a huge bomb there yesterday, collapsing a concrete building and wounding at least five Israeli soldiers.
The army declined comment on reports that soldiers were also killed in the attack, for which Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades claimed responsibility. The groups said they were avenging Israel's killing of militants in recent weeks, including seven shot dead Saturday in the West Bank.
Early today, Israeli helicopters fired 10 missiles at two metal workshops in Gaza City, setting off fires and causing some damage, but no major injury. Israel has targeted such workshops repeatedly in the past, saying they are used for making homemade rockets and other weapons.
Yesterday's carefully orchestrated bombing came as Egypt was trying to broker a cease-fire between Israel and militant groups ahead of a planned Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. It seemed unlikely the blast would disrupt a pullback. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel has said he is determined to go ahead with a plan he believes is crucial for Israel's security.
As Israeli ambulances evacuated the wounded yesterday, Palestinian militants kept firing at the outpost, drawing heavy Israeli fire from machine guns and tanks, witnesses said. In a nearby Palestinian village, a police officer and a 15-year-old boy were killed by Israeli fire, medics said.
The blast went off shortly before 10 p.m., at an army outpost at the Gush Katif junction, near Gaza's largest bloc of Israeli settlements. The outpost is protected by reinforced concrete.
Militants said they dug a 1,000-foot tunnel to reach the outpost. In a videotaped claim of responsibility, Al Aqsa said it used 3,300 pounds of explosives, though in an earlier phone call to the Associated Press it said 330 pounds were used. "This is a message to Sharon that . . . our fighters will continue the holy struggle until we uproot them [Israelis] from our land," said an Al Aqsa spokesman, who only gave his name as Abu Mohammed.
Hamas said the explosion came as revenge for Israel's assassination of the group's founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, in March, and of his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, in April. In Gaza City, about 2,000 people rushed into the streets to celebrate, among them about 100 armed men.
The Arab satellite television station, Al-Jazeera, reported that five Israeli soldiers were killed in the Gaza blast. Israel's military censor does not permit reporting on the deaths of soldiers until families have been notified. However, security officials suggested Al-Jazeera's figure was too high.
The army said five soldiers were wounded, one critically.
Brigadier General Shmuel Zakai, an Israeli army commander in Gaza, said that it must have taken weeks to dig the tunnel.