GAZA CITY (AFP) — The Gaza Strip braced for more violence on Thursday after three Israeli soldiers and 18 Palestinians, one a cameraman for an international news agency, were killed in a helicopter-backed incursion.
Hamas has vowed to avenge Wednesday's military assault on the impoverished territory, while Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the Islamist movement bears "direct responsibility" for the fighting.
"We consider that Hamas bears sole, direct responsibility for what happened in Gaza and it will pay the price," Olmert said in an interview with Israel's Maariv newspaper.
Welfare Minister Yitzak Herzog said Wednesday's clashes showed that a months-long Israeli-led embargo of the territory and near-daily military operations were succeeding in putting pressure on the Hamas-run government.
Hamas "is under very high pressure. That's why they tried to launch operations like the one yesterday, in order to try to change the rules of the game," said the minister, who serves on Israel's powerful security cabinet.
Herzog admitted, however, that the previous day's operation was a "tactical failure for Israel" because of the soldiers who died.
Israel has repeatedly threatened to launch a widescale operation to oust Hamas from the impoverished coastal strip, but local media have speculated that it may wait until after the Jewish Passover holiday, which begins on Saturday.
Police have gone on high alert for the holiday, deploying thousands of reinforcements throughout the country as the army strictly limits the movement of Palestinians into and out of the occupied West Bank.
Hamas has vowed to avenge Wednesday's strikes. "All options are open to repel this aggression against our people," spokesman Fawzi Barhum told AFP.
In an Internet statement Hamas called on its fighters to attack Israel "in every place and with all means available."
The threats came after the deadliest day in the Hamas-ruled territory in weeks and as Israeli troops continued to strike Palestinian militants, killing two Islamic Jihad fighters in a pre-dawn operation in the northern West Bank.
On Wednesday, 23-year-old Reuters cameraman Fadel Shana was mortally wounded when he was hit by a shell from an Israeli tank he had been filming and died after being taken to hospital.
Another three people were also killed in the strike, including two boys on a bicycle.
An Israeli military spokesman expressed regret after the incident.
"We regret the death of a photographer, but it must be pointed out that there's a war going on against armed terrorists who are extremists and dangerous," he told AFP.
Shana was driving near the Al-Bureij refugee camp in southern Gaza, where at least nine Palestinian civilians were killed in an earlier air strike, according to Dr Muawiya Hassanein, the head of Gaza emergency services.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, on a visit to Moscow, strongly condemned the Israeli military assault and called on all sides to respect a ceasefire.
Abbas, whose forces were driven from Gaza in June when Hamas seized power there, has been holding US-sponsored peace talks with Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert since November.
Israel has meanwhile launched near-daily military operations in the Gaza Strip aimed at halting rocket fire on southern Israel, which has killed 14 people since 2000.
Earlier on Wednesday clashes erupted after Palestinian gunmen approached the security fence separating Gaza from Israel near the Nahal Oz fuel terminal which supplies most of Gaza's fuel and which was attacked last week.
Israel shut the crossing after the attack eight days ago but on Wednesday resumed shipments of fuel for the territory's sole power plant, which provides around 30 percent of its electricity.
Hamas gunmen killed the three soldiers in what it called a "sophisticated ambush."
Four Hamas fighters had been killed earlier by an Israeli unit backed by helicopters, and a fifth Palestinian militant was killed in an air strike.
Palestinian militants meanwhile fired at least 24 homemade rockets and 35 mortar shells at southern Israel without causing casualties, the army said.
The latest deaths bring to 412 the number of people killed, mostly Gaza militants, since Israel and the Palestinians relaunched formal peace talks last November, according to an AFP count.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »