- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2009

JERUSALEM | Palestinian militants detonated a bomb that killed an Israeli soldier patrolling near Gaza on Tuesday and Israel responded with an air strike, straining the fragile cease-fire on the eve of a visit by President Obama’s new Mideast envoy.

The violence jolted the calm that has largely prevailed since Israel ended a devastating three-week offensive in Gaza on Jan. 17. Since withdrawing its troops, Israel has threatened to retaliate hard for any violations of the truce.

On Wednesday, Israeli aircraft struck at tunnels used for smuggling goods and weapons on the border between Gaza and Egypt, according to Reuters news agency.

Residents of the Gaza town of Rafah and Hamas security officials said some people began to flee their homes in panic as the aircraft struck three times before dawn. There was no initial word of casualties.

An Israeli army spokesman confirmed that Israel had carried out air strikes on smuggling tunnels in the town of Rafah.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called an urgent meeting of Israel’s top defense officers after the earlier bomb blast. “We will respond, but there is no point in elaborating,” Mr. Barak said, shortly before the air strike. Mr. Barak talked with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert after the meeting, but no details of the discussion were released.

The Israeli military dismissed earlier reports that the explosive might have been an old land mine triggered accidentally. The military said it had determined that the bomb was activated by militants, but it would not give details.

The blast also wounded three Israeli soldiers and triggered a brief battle when Israeli troops briefly crossed the border in search of the attackers. Later, Hamas said one of its militants was wounded in an Israeli air strike.

The violence - hours before the new U.S. Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, was expected in Israel - underscored the difficulty Mr. Obama faces as he tries to get Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts back on track.

Gazans are struggling to resume normal life after the fighting, and as international donors discuss how best to help the territory rebuild. Gaza’s Hamas leader said Tuesday the group - which is boycotted as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union - would not try to claim any of the reconstruction funds, an announcement that appeared aimed at clearing the way for money to start flowing.

The announcement from Ismail Haniyeh, who remains in hiding because of fears he could be assassinated by Israel, appeared directed at donors who were concerned their funds could end up in Hamas’ hands.

After Tuesday’s bomb blast, heavy gunfire was heard along the border in central Gaza and Israeli helicopters hovered in the air firing machine gun bursts, Palestinian witnesses said.

Hamas said an air strike wounded one of its militants as he rode a motorcycle in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis.

Residents said Israeli tanks and bulldozers have also entered the area where the roadside bombing took place and were tearing up some vacant land - apparently to prevent it from being used to stage attacks.

The Israeli military said the bomb targeted an Israeli patrol near the border community of Kissufim.

Egypt is trying to negotiate a longer-term arrangement to allow quiet in the coastal territory of 1.4 million people, which has been ruled by the Islamic militants of Hamas since June 2007.

Israel wants an end to Hamas rocket attacks and guarantees that Hamas will be prevented from smuggling weapons into Gaza from Egypt. Hamas has demanded that Israel and Egypt reopen Gaza’s border crossings, which have been largely closed since Hamas took power. The crossings are Gaza’s economic lifeline.

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