Israeli tanks rumble into Gaza, razing farmland near border
Violence rises; cease-fire due to expire next month
GAZA CITY - Israeli tanks pushed into the southern Gaza Strip yesterday, 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 Egyptian border.
The Israeli military described the activity as "a routine operation to uncover explosive devices." Militant groups said they fired mortars 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 mortars at Israel.
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.
Yesterday, 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 home to 1.4 million people.
The head of the UN aid agency for Palestinian refugees, Karen AbuZayd, yesterday called on Israel to end the blockade. She said the agency's food warehouse is empty.
The top human rights official for the UN, Navi Pillay, urged an end to the blockade, which she said breached international and humanitarian law. In a statement from her Geneva-based office, she said Palestinians "have been forcibly deprived of their most basic human rights for months."