GAZA CITY -- Israeli forces killed 11 militants yesterday in one of the deadliest days of combat since Hamas wrested control of Gaza last month. Israel called in aircraft, tanks, and bulldozers to press its campaign against Gaza rocket squads, while Islamic militants laid mines and fired mortars at soldiers at the main Gaza-Israel passage.
Since sweeping out its Fatah rivals in a lightning campaign, Hamas has sought to solidify its regime administering crowded, chaotic, poverty-stricken Gaza. It has initiated few attacks on Israel, but also has not stopped other groups from firing rockets at Israeli towns almost daily, provoking Israeli military action and drawing in Hamas forces.
Fighting escalated quickly yesterday after an Israeli patrol just inside Gaza spotted armed militants approaching and called in an airstrike. That clash erupted close to the Bureij refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, a site of frequent clashes between gunmen and the Israeli army.
Witnesses reported a heavy exchange of fire as Israeli tanks and bulldozers moved in and soldiers took positions on rooftops. Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants hit back with small-arms fire, laid mines in front of the soldiers, and fired mortars at the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza.
The army said two mortar shells hit on the Israeli side of the passage, which has been closed to most traffic since Hamas seized Gaza. No one was hurt, but the explosions ignited a fire in a road, the army said.
Hospital officials said nine militants were killed, and Hamas identified six as its members. The other three were not immediately identified. Among the dead was Mohammed Siam, 37, the Hamas field commander in central Gaza, Hamas TV said.
Israeli aircraft later fired missiles at targets in the area, the army said. Hospital officials said two militants were killed. Hamas said both were its members.
Israel frequently sends troops a short distance into Gaza, where they look for tunnels that might be used for infiltration or attacks. Also, military bulldozers often move into border areas to flatten land used by militants to launch their short-range homemade rockets.
Abu Obeida, Hamas spokesman, said yesterday's fighting began when Hamas gunmen fired at an Israeli undercover unit. The clash set off the bloodiest day of conflict since June 27, when 12 Palestinians were killed in fights with Israeli forces.
Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, who was fired as Palestinian prime minister by President Mahmoud Abbas after Hamas defeated Fatah in Gaza, and a spokesman for Fatah both condemned the Israeli operation and urged Palestinians to fight back.
"We assert that our people have the full right to defend themselves and to confront these aggressions," Haniyeh said. Fatah official Hazem Abu Shanab echoed the sentiment.
The two rival movements, however, squabbled on another front, when about 400 Fatah civil servants were prevented from entering their Gaza offices in an argument over the official weekend.
The Hamas-dictated work week in Gaza is Saturday to Wednesday. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, appointed by Abbas to head a new government that excludes Hamas, recently announced the work week runs Sunday through Thursday.