Hamas commander and Israeli officer among eight killed in Gaza violence

Protesters near the fence on Gaza Strip border with Israel on Friday Credit: AP/Adel Hana

A fresh wave of fighting has erupted in the Gaza Strip, leaving an Israeli soldier and seven Palestinians dead.

It was not immediately clear what set off the sudden, rare late-night burst of violence between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants.

However it came just as Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers had appeared to be making progress toward ratcheting down months of border unrest.

In a statement early on Monday, the Israeli military said an officer had been killed and another one was moderately injured during “an operational activity” in southeast Gaza Strip, during which an exchange of gunfire was evolved.

The operation had ended and the families of the soldiers were notified, it added.

Earlier, Hamas’ armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, said Israeli undercover forces in a civilian vehicle infiltrated 2 miles into Gaza and fatally shot Nour el-Deen Baraka, its local commander in Khan Younis town.

It said militants discovered the car and chased it down, prompting Israeli airstrikes that killed “a number of people”.

The clashes had abated by early Monday morning.

The Israeli military reported earlier that “all IDF (Israel Defence Forces) soldiers (are) back in Israel” – but it did not elaborate.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said six people, including at least five militants, were killed and seven others wounded.

In the early hours of Monday a seventh body was found.

In Israel, the military said it had intercepted two rockets fired from Gaza as air raid sirens continued to sound.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to France at the weekend to take part in Armistice Day commemorations. Credit: AP/Christophe Ena

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on an official visit to France, announced he was rushing back to Israel to deal with the crisis.

Sunday’s development shattered what appeared to be a turning point after months of bloodshed along the Israel-Gaza border, with weekly Hamas-led protests drawing thousands to the perimeter fence with Israel.

Over 170 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in the border protests, in which Palestinians throw rocks, burning tires and grenades toward Israeli troops.

Last week, Israel allowed Qatar to deliver 15 million dollars (£11.6m) in aid to Gaza’s cash-strapped Hamas rulers.

Hamas responded by lowering the intensity of Friday’s border protest.

Earlier on Sunday, Mr Netanyahu had defended his decision to allow the transfer of the Qatari money, rejecting criticism that the move had strengthened the Islamic militant group.

Mr Netanyahu told reporters that it was “the right step” at the moment and that he was committed to restoring quiet along the Israel-Gaza frontier and preventing a humanitarian crisis in the coastal Palestinian territory.

“Every action, without exception, has a price,” he said. “If you can’t handle the price you cannot lead. And I can handle the price.”

Eight people have died in renewed unrest in the Gaza strip. Credit: AP

Israeli critics, including members of Mr Netanyahu’s hard-line coalition, accused him of capitulating to violence and of granting relief to the embattled Hamas group.

The internationally backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces lost control of Gaza to Hamas in 2007, angrily accused the US and Israel of being involved in a “conspiracy” to permanently sever Gaza from the West Bank.

He promised to take unspecified measures against his Hamas rivals in the coming days.

Hamas leaders in Gaza have described the arrival of the 15 million dollars, delivered last week in three suitcases by a Qatari diplomat, as their first major gain of more than seven months of weekly protests along the perimeter fence.

Hamas has been leading the protests since March 30 in a bid to ease a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade that was imposed in 2007 in order to weaken the militant group.

The blockade has led to over 50% unemployment and chronic power outages, and prevents most Gazans from being able to leave the tiny territory.

Israel says it is defending its border against militant infiltrations, but its army has come under international criticism because of the large number of unarmed protesters who have been shot.