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4 killed as Israelis, Palestinians exchange fire

Israeli troops and Palestinian militants fought with missiles and mortars along the Gaza-Israel border on Wednesday, raising concerns that a five-month-old truce might collapse.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israeli troops and Palestinian militants fought with missiles and mortars along the Gaza-Israel border on Wednesday, raising new concerns that an increasingly shaky five-month-old truce might collapse. Four Hamas militants were killed in the exchange.

The Hamas military wing said it would retaliate.

The clashes erupted on the seventh day of a tight Israeli border closure of Gaza. A U.N. aid agency warned that it will be forced to halt its food distribution to hundreds of thousands of needy Gazans this week because it cannot replenish supplies. Israel also barred journalists from entering the territory.

Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israeli leaders have said in recent days they're interested in restoring calm, but the latest fighting highlighted the persistent tensions along the border. Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007, and Israel later declared Gaza a "hostile entity." An Egyptian-brokered truce took hold in June.

Israel's military said Wednesday's fighting began when Israeli forces spotted armed militants approaching Gaza's border fence, near the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis. The men were trying to lay an explosive device near the fence, the military said.

An exchange of fire erupted. The militants set off an explosive device and fired three mortars at troops, the military said. Israeli soldiers hit four militants, the army said. An Israeli soldier was slightly injured.

Later, Israeli aircraft fired two missiles at open fields.

Unraveling truce
The military said the clash began on the border, and that at one point troops entered Gaza in pursuit of the gunmen. Palestinian militants said they only opened fire after troops entered Gaza.

Hamas' military wing threatened retaliation. "The anger of our people and our resistance will reach everybody, God willing, and our response to the enemy will be painful, and will spill the Zionists blood," the wing's spokesman, Abu Obeida, said in a statement.

Hamas stopped short of saying the truce was over but said militants would fight any entry of Israeli forces into Gaza. "This is a clear violation of the truce, and the resistance has the right to respond to any attack," said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman.

The truce began to unravel last week, after Israeli forces trying to destroy a militants' tunnel entered Gaza, setting off battles that killed seven Palestinian gunmen. The fighting unleashed a wave of rocket attacks from Gaza at Israeli border towns.

Israeli officials have warned that truce might not last.

"We are looking at the relative calm around us and know that under the surface other things are brewing," said Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Tuesday in a visit to the army's Southern Command, in charge of Gaza operations.

Foreign journalists, meanwhile, protested Israel's decision to keep them out of Gaza.

In a statement, the Foreign Press Association, which represents international media covering Israel and the Palestinian territories, described the ban as a "serious violation of press freedom."

'A blockade'
Israeli military spokesman Peter Lerner said the restrictions were imposed because Palestinian militants have resumed their rocket fire from Gaza. The only people allowed to enter and leave Gaza under the policy are international aid workers and Palestinian patients seeking medical treatment outside the territory, he said.

But in the past, journalists have been allowed into the territory during times of far greater violence, including large-scale military campaigns.

The United Nation warned that it would have to halt food distribution to 750,000 Gazans because of the continued closure. "This has now become a blockade on the United Nations," said Chris Gunness, spokesman for the U.N. Relief Works Agency.

Lerner said Israel might allow food aid to pass through on Thursday.

A U.N. flour warehouse in Gaza City was empty Wednesday, and another held six tons of canned meat — three short of the amount required for a day's distribution, the U.N. said.