JERUSALEM—For the first time since its leaders took control of the Palestinian government in March, Hamas militants led a sophisticated pre-dawn attack Sunday on an Israeli military outpost along the Gaza border, killing two soldiers and abducting a third.
The raid created the most serious crisis here since Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip last summer.
Israeli tanks almost immediately moved into the fringes of the Gaza Strip, talks between rival Palestinian factions over ending attacks inside Israel fell apart, and Egyptian diplomats worked feverishly to prevent the situation from spinning out of control.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his military leaders warned the Palestinian government that it would be held responsible for the safety of the kidnapped soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19.
"We intend to respond to what happened this morning in such a way that everyone involved will know the price they will pay will be painful, and if the situation does not change, will hurt sevenfold," said Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz.
It was unclear whether the attack could have taken place without the knowledge of top-level Hamas leaders. Nor was it clear how long the operation had been planned. In taking credit for the attack, militants called it retaliation for several recent Israeli raids, but the Palestinians attacked the Israeli outpost through a 700-yard tunnel that Capt. Noa Meir of the Israel Defense Forces said would have taken months to dig.
The new Hamas-led government urged militants holding Shalit to keep him safe, but stopped short of calling for his release. Israel's Cabinet met late Sunday night to weigh its options and reportedly cleared the way for a possible rescue attempt before staging a wider military assault.
But efforts to free Shalit could be tempered by painful memories of past efforts to rescue kidnapped Israelis. In 1994, another 19-year-old soldier, Israeli-American Nachson Waxman, was kidnapped by Hamas militants and killed five days later during a failed Israeli rescue mission.
Sunday's attack came as Hamas leaders were working out the final details of an agreement with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to halt attacks inside Israel.
Abbas, who leads the more moderate Fatah party, joined Israel in criticizing Hamas for staging the raid just as the two sides were finalizing a deal that would have barred such attacks.
Sunday's attack took place before dawn at an Israeli army outpost near the Kerem Shalom kibbutz, which lies just inside Israel at Gaza's southern end. The kibbutz is about four miles southeast of Rafah and about two miles northeast of the Egyptian border.
Using a tunnel more than a third of a mile long, three teams of Palestinian commandoes surprised soldiers at the outpost with mortars, machine guns and hand grenades.
The tunnel, which began under a Palestinian home 400 yards inside the Gaza Strip, stretched 300 yards into Israel.
At least two of the Palestinian militants were wearing Israeli military uniforms during the assault.
Two Israeli soldiers were killed and four others wounded, the Israeli military said.
Two Palestinians were also killed, but five or six others managed to escape back into the Gaza Strip with Shalit, who was seen walking with his captors, the Israeli military said.
The raid—dubbed "Operation Fading Illusion" by the attackers—marked the first time since Hamas took over the Palestinian government that its militant wing has launched such an assault inside Israel. Until this month, Hamas had largely stood by a 16-month cease-fire with Israel as smaller militant groups launched suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis.
But Hamas called off its cease-fire in early June after a series of inflammatory deaths. First, Israel assassinated a top Hamas security official and leading Gaza Strip militant, Jamal Abu Samhadana, in an aerial missile strike. The following day, eight Palestinian civilians out for a day at the beach were killed in an explosion during an Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip coast.
An Israeli military investigation declared that none of its shells hit the Palestinians that afternoon, but the findings are in dispute, and Hamas immediately resumed launching rudimentary rockets into southern Israel.
The Hamas military wing joined Samhadana's Popular Resistance Committees and a new group called the Islamic Army in taking credit for the attack, calling it a response to the recent Israeli attacks, including three botched missile strikes that killed 13 Palestinian civilians in the past two weeks.
"The operation is a natural response to the occupation crimes and massacres against the Palestinian people," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. "Hamas will continue to resist as long as there is occupation."
Sunday's kidnapping was the first since 2000, when three Israeli soldiers were kidnapped and killed by Hezbollah forces on Israel's border with Lebanon. Their bodies were returned to Israel four years later as part of a prisoner exchange.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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