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Palestinians say attack broke cease-fire

Israel defends Gaza raid that killed 1 militant

GAZA CITY -- An Israeli helicopter attack in the Gaza Strip yesterday that killed a member of a militant squad was one of the most serious breaches yet of the four-month-old cease-fire, Palestinian officials said.

The Israeli military said the air attack was aimed at militants planting a bomb along the border fence and did not amount to a cease-fire violation.

Israel denied sending ground forces into the coastal territory. But Palestinian officials who monitor the border said fighting erupted before dawn when plainclothes Israeli special forces slipped past the fence and were discovered by a squad of fighters from two small militant groups that refuse to honor the Nov. 26 truce.

The helicopter attack was apparently aimed at covering the retreat of the special forces. In the last two weeks, Israel has staged an airstrike and a brief ground incursion against Palestinian gunmen, killing one in each operation.

Palestinian witnesses who described yesterday's 90-minute battle said the Israeli helicopter fired at least four missiles between the border fence and the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza Strip, wounding three Palestinians.

One of them, Fuad Maruf, 22, of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was killed.

That group and Islamic Jihad said they had been firing rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons at the Israeli special forces and setting off explosives along the fence.

Israeli officials say militant groups in Gaza, including Hamas, which shares power in the Palestinian Authority government, have been exploiting the cease-fire to smuggle explosives, missiles, and other weapons into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt.

During the truce, Palestinians have continued to fire crude Kassam rockets into Israel, although at a slower rate.

Israel withdrew its military bases and settlers from Gaza in September 2005. After militants seized an Israeli soldier from his post along the Gaza border, Israeli troops frequently reentered the territory.