GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – An Israeli aircraft Wednesday fired at a group of Hamas militants who were about to shoot mortar shells at a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip,the army and witnesses said, describing the first such airstrike since a fragile cease-fire was declared in February.
The Israeli strike, combined with a recent increase in militant attacks on Gaza settlements, strained the truce and threatened to derail efforts to restart peace moves.
The airstrike came minutes after militants fired four mortar shells at the Gush Katif settlement bloc. The army said it spotted two Palestinians preparing to fire more mortars when it attacked.
Hamas said one of its members was critically wounded while conducting a “holy mission.”
Earlier Wednesday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian militant at the edge of the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza. Residents identified the dead man as a Hamas member.
Military officials said the Palestinians fired rifles and aimed anti-tank grenades at Israeli soldiers, who shot back. Such cases have been rare since the cease-fire was declared Feb. 8.
Israel had not responded to a barrage of recent mortar and rocket attacks aimed at the settlements in recent weeks, prompting strong criticism from the residents, who said the government was leaving them defenseless.
The government had said it would retaliate against militants who attacked as it prepares to withdraw from Gaza this summer, Israeli government spokesman Raanan Gissin said.
“What do you expect us to do if they are attacking us?” he said, adding that part of the truce agreement allowed Israel to respond to attacks from Palestinian areas if the Palestinian security forces were not doing anything to prevent the violence.
Since the cease-fire went into effect, there has been a sharp drop in overall violence, and the two sides have stepped up cooperation on security matters. However, Israel has resisted calls to resume peace talks until the Palestinians take tougher action against militants.