- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2007

JERUSALEM — Israeli forces moved into the Gaza Strip yesterday in a hunt for weapons and wanted militants, sparking a fierce battle with Hamas militants that killed an Israeli soldier. It was the first Israeli combat death since November, the army said.

In other violence, Israeli troops fatally shot a Palestinian man who opened fire at soldiers at a West Bank checkpoint, the army said. It said the man had an AK-47 assault rifle and was wearing an explosives belt.

About 10 tanks and two bulldozers backed by helicopters moved before dawn about 500 yards into farming fields near the Bureij refugee camp in Gaza, witnesses and the Hamas militant group said. Hamas said its gunmen detonated two large mines.

The army said one soldier was killed and two were lightly injured.

When gunmen approached the troops, Israeli aircraft fired on them and identified hitting them, the army said. Hamas said two Palestinians were injured, one seriously, a militant of the group.

Later, Hamas said its militants fired two rocket-propelled grenades at an army bulldozer, setting it on fire. The army said there was no damage. The Islamic Jihad militant group also said it fired a rocket toward southern Israel. No injuries were reported.

The army said the death was the first combat fatality since Nov. 1. It also was the first time a soldier has been killed in fighting with Hamas since the Islamic militant group violently seized control of Gaza last month.

Senior military officials said yesterday’s operation was part of a strategy to keep Hamas on the defensive to weaken its ability to plan and carry out attacks. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity under military policy.

In footage taped by Associated Press Television News, Israeli soldiers were seen herding Palestinian prisoners into armored vehicles. Later, about 10 prisoners, wearing blue jumpsuits and white blindfolds, sat on the ground at an Israeli army base as soldiers gave them water to drink.

The army said it detained dozens of people for questioning, but most were quickly released.

Israeli troops frequently enter the Gaza Strip to conduct operations to target rocket-launching squads and destroy tunnels used to smuggle weapons.

Soldiers have conducted several such incursions since Hamas took control of the coastal area. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, ending 38 years of military rule.

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