GAZA CITY - Israeli troops backed by tanks and bulldozers crossed into southern Gaza to strike at Palestinian militants yesterday, killing 10, a day after Israeli leaders ruled out a large-scale offensive to stop daily rocket salvos from Gaza.
The battle began in the morning and continued for several hours near the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis.
Israel said troops inside Gaza on a "routine" mission shot at a group of militants who approached them, sparking an exchange of fire. Four militants were killed.
Gaza's Hamas leaders said militants were targeted either by an Israeli tank shell or missile fire. Dr. Moaiya Hassanain of the Palestinian Health Ministry reported shrapnel wounds consistent with shell fire.
Later in the day, Palestinian militants said fighters in a tractor and jeep crashed through the fence on the Gaza-Israel border and attacked an Israeli Army post.
The militants were trying to attack a base but were repulsed, the military said. Israeli aircraft struck two cars in the area, the army said, apparently the ones that tried to attack the base. Six militants were killed in that encounter, both sides said.
An Israeli Army commander, Colonel Shlomi Dahan, said the heavily armed Palestinians intended to capture a soldier. Palestinians said Israeli forces withdrew from the Khan Younis area after nightfall.
The toll of 10 was the highest in a single day in Gaza since June 27, when 12 were killed in clashes with Israeli forces.
The fighting came as Quartet envoy Tony Blair met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The former British prime minister is on his first extended mission since assuming his role for the Quartet, which comprises the United States, United Nations, European Union, and Russia. Blair's spokesman would give no details of the meeting. Blair is scheduled to report to the Quartet at the end of the month.
Internal tensions resurfaced in Gaza yesterday when Hamas charged its rival, Fatah, with trying to re-ignite violence. The Islamic Hamas overran Gaza in June, vanquishing security forces loyal to Fatah and President Mahmoud Abbas. Hundreds of Palestinians were killed in more than a year of infighting.
A Hamas official said Fatah activists confessed to planning to plant explosives during prayers today. Fatah officials denied that and charged Hamas with seeking a pretext to crack down on Fatah.
Meanwhile, Fatah officials said they would defy a Hamas ban on public prayer today. Recent Muslim prayer gatherings on Friday in Gaza have turned into anti-Hamas riots.
In a speech to party activists late yesterday in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert drew a link between yesterday's clash and daily rocket attacks by Palestinians from Gaza.
"We will act every day against the terrorists," Olmert said. "This very day many in Gaza paid with their lives because of the [rockets]."
In Gaza, Hamas official Osama Muzini turned down a request by the Red Cross to see an Israeli soldier captured in a raid in June 2006. He said allowing a visit might lead Israel to the soldier. The request was made Wednesday by the director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross during a visit to Gaza.