Blast at Gaza Border Kills Israeli Soldier; Palestinian Farmer Killed by Gunfire

The Obama administration's Middle East envoy, former senator George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), arrives in Israel as renewed clashes threaten a tenuous cease-fire between Israel and Hamas after a 22-day conflict in the Gaza Strip.
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 28, 2009; 10:22 AM

JERUSALEM, Jan. 28 -- The Obama administration's Middle East envoy, former senator George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), arrived here Wednesday to push for a more solid cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, hours after Israel bombed smuggling tunnels in Gaza to retaliate for a Tuesday attack that killed an Israeli soldier.

The 10-day-old cease-fire seemed increasingly fragile, despite Mitchell's call for it to "be extended and consolidated."

Palestinian fighters detonated a bomb near the fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, killing the Israeli soldier. Israeli gunfire later killed a Palestinian farmer, according to Gaza medical officials, and Israeli officials claimed to have killed the planner of the bomb attack in an airstrike that took place before the tunnel bombardment.

Although there was no indication that either side planned to resume full-scale hostilities, the attacks marked the worst outbreak of violence since Israel and Hamas pledged to hold their fire after 22 days of war.

"The United States is committed to vigorously pursuing lasting peace and stability in the region," Mitchell said, according to wire service reports. Mitchell's first stop in the region was Cairo, where he met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He is scheduled to sit down with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and top security officials in Jerusalem before traveling to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

An Israeli soldier was severely wounded in the bomb blast, and two others were lightly injured, according to the Israel Defense Forces. The soldiers had been patrolling on the Israeli side of the fence at the time of the blast. There was no immediate assertion of responsibility, but Hamas praised the attack.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement that the attack on the soldiers was "a grave and unacceptable incident," and promised an Israeli response.

A 27-year-old Palestinian farmer was killed soon after the attack, Gaza medical officials said, but it was unclear if the two incidents were related. Late in the afternoon, a drone aircraft fired on a motorbike in the city of Khan Younis, in southern Gaza. Medical officials said the driver and another man were injured, while the Israeli military told Reuters that the strike killed the planner of the roadside bomb attack.

The Israeli military said it had closed the border crossings with Gaza after the attack on the soldiers, preventing 185 truckloads of humanitarian supplies and other goods from entering the coastal enclave. There was no immediate indication of when they would reopen.

Early Wednesday, Israel conducted airstrikes against smuggling tunnels in the Gaza town of Rafah that stretched under the border with Egypt, an army spokesman confirmed.

Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire starting Jan. 18 after a conflict that left 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead. Hamas also agreed that day to temporarily stop firing rockets into Israel. But the Islamist movement has vowed to resume rocket fire if Israel does not fully open the border crossings, which are the lifeline to the outside world for Gaza's 1.5 million residents.

Egyptian mediators are talking with Israel and Hamas about extending the cease-fire by a year or more. Israel's central demands are that Hamas halt its rocket fire, release captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and stop smuggling weapons into Gaza.

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