Hamas stages blasts at Gaza gate
13 Israeli soldiers injured; missiles kill 5 Palestinians
JERUSALEM - Hamas suicide bombers detonated two explosives-laden vehicles at a key crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip yesterday morning, wounding 13 Israeli soldiers in an attack the army described as unusually sophisticated.
The bombing, under the cover of morning fog and just hours before the start of the Passover holiday, was the fifth strike at a Gaza border crossing in recent weeks. A Hamas spokesman vowed that there would be "worse to come" as the group released video apparently showing the faces of three attackers before the assault.
Gaza has been under a severe economic blockade since June, when Hamas took over the narrow coastal strip after routing forces loyal to the rival Fatah party.
Hamas, a radical Islamist movement that does not recognize Israel, has vowed repeatedly to break the blockade, though Israeli officials say attacks such as yesterday's show that the group is trying to provoke a crisis in Gaza by striking at the territory's lifelines.
All goods coming in and out of Gaza must be approved by Israel, and only humanitarian essentials are allowed through a small number of crossings.
"They know that the crossings are the way to provide food, medicine, and gas. They don't care if the population doesn't receive these things," said Major Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman.
The assault occurred at 6 a.m. when three vehicles, two painted to look like Israeli army jeeps and an armored car, approached the Kerem Shalom crossing in southern Gaza, Leibovich said.
With heavy mortar fire giving them cover, the vehicles burst through a perimeter fence. When Israeli soldiers were dispatched to confront the vehicles, two of the vehicles exploded. Of the 13 soldiers wounded, one sustained serious injuries, Leibovich said.
Half an hour later, another armored vehicle approached a different crossing but was struck by an Israeli tank shell before it reached its apparent target.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak later visited the border area where the first suicide attack occurred. "When the time comes, Hamas will bear the consequences," he warned.
Major General Yoav Galant, the top army commander in the area, said Hamas apparently tried to cause a large number of casualties and to kidnap soldiers in yesterday's operation. "This is an attack the likes of which we have not seen since disengagement," Galant said, referring to Israel's pullout from Gaza in September 2005.
Also yesterday, four Palestinian fighters and a member of Hamas's police force were killed in separate Israeli strikes, police and medical sources in Gaza said.
The four militants were killed in a missile strike east of Gaza City. A mechanic for the Hamas police was killed when a missile hit a car near Kerem Shalom. The Israeli military said it targeted people trying to launch rockets.
Israelis began celebrating Passover at sundown yesterday. Passover commemorates the ancient Israelites' liberation from Egyptian slavery.
The new violence occurred as Jimmy Carter, the former US president, met for a second time in two days with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Damascus. The two talked for four hours Friday night and an additional hour yesterday morning.
Carter has said he wants to involve Hamas in the peace process, while Hamas has said it hopes to improve its image by meeting with Carter, the most prominent American to sit down with the group.
Israel and the United States have spoken out against Carter's meetings, saying Hamas is a terrorist organization.
Despite the recent attacks, Hamas has said it still seeks a truce on the Gaza-Israel border, and Egypt has been trying to broker such a deal. Hamas officials said they talked to Carter about ways to lift the Gaza closure and the possibility of swapping an Israeli soldier held in Gaza for Palestinian prisoners in Israel.
In Washington last week, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit of Egypt said the prisoner swap might involve the release of up to 400 prisoners in exchange for Corporal Gilad Shalit.
Aboul Gheit said an eventual opening of the Gaza border crossings, under control of the moderate West Bank government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, could also be part of the package.
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.