At least 11 Palestinian militants were killed in airstrikes and armed clashes during an Israeli army incursion into central Gaza on Thursday, Palestinian medical officials said. It was one of the bloodiest days for Hamas since it took control of the Gaza Strip three weeks ago.
Hamas officials said that seven of the dead were members of its military wing, known as the Qassam Brigades, mostly men in their early 20s. The Islamic Jihad faction said one of its men was among the dead. The affiliation of the other three was not clear.
Israeli military officials described the raid as a routine operation to root out "terrorist infrastructures" and search for weapons and wanted men. Israel's Army Radio reported that dozens of Palestinians suspected of involvement in terrorism were being questioned in Gaza.
But Hamas officials accused Israel of trying to provoke an escalation of the conflict after a few days of relative quiet on the Gaza-Israel border. A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said the incursion was "an Israeli plan to end the resistance and to shake the government, despite its successes and achievements."
He was referring to the deposed Hamas-led government of Ismail Haniya, which was fired by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, of the rival Fatah faction, after Hamas' violent conquest of Gaza. Abbas appointed an emergency government to operate from the West Bank, but the Hamas leadership holds sway in Gaza and is trying to prove that it can impose order there.
The Israeli forces entered Gaza early Thursday, penetrating about half a mile into Palestinian territory, an Israeli Army spokesman said. Palestinian officials said the fighting was focused in areas east of two refugee camps, Maghazi and Bureij.
Two squads of armed Palestinians were hit from the air as they were spotted approaching the ground forces, and five more armed Palestinians were hit in exchanges of fire on the ground, the army spokesman said. Two Israeli soldiers were lightly wounded when a grenade was fired at an army bulldozer, the spokesman said.
Dr. Muawiya Hassanein, director of the emergency medical service in Gaza, said 25 Palestinians had been wounded.