Israeli soldiers leave Gaza after fierce clash
JERUSALEM: Israel withdrew its troops from the Gaza Strip Saturday after some of the fiercest gunbattles with Palestinian militants in the Hamas-run territory since last year's military offensive.
Israeli troops used bulldozers to "remove infrastructure used by terrorists to attack soldiers" before the early morning withdrawal, a military spokeswoman said.
The violence began Friday when soldiers patrolling the border crossed into Gaza after spotting Palestinians planting explosives near the fence with Israel.
Two Israeli soldiers and two Palestinian militants were killed in the gunbattle, the military said. Palestinian medics said one civilian was killed and seven were wounded in the fighting. Militants reported one wounded and one missing.
Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza, confirmed their gunmen were involved in Friday's violence — marking a shift from the group's tendency over the past year to avoid confrontation with Israeli forces.
The military said it holds Hamas responsible for the latest violence.
"We will not tolerate any attempt to harm the citizens of the state of Israel and we will continue to operate firmly against anyone who uses terror against it," a military statement said.
The fighting followed a string of recent Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel that have ratcheted up tensions along the Israel-Gaza border.
Palestinians fired another rocket into Israel after troops left Saturday. It exploded in an open field and nobody was injured.
The violence underscored some of the challenges the U.S. faces as it tries to get Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track.
Also Friday, Egyptian police said they arrested 45 suspected smugglers over the past three days in an intensified crackdown on the supply line to Gaza by way of hundreds of cross-border tunnels. Among the suspects was a man accused of trying to deliver $242,000 in Egyptian pounds and U.S. dollars to Hamas in Gaza, police said.
Israel and Egypt sealed their borders with Gaza in 2007 after Hamas militants took over the coastal territory in bloody street battles with the more moderate Palestinian Fatah party.
Since then, Gaza's Hamas rulers have depended on the smuggling of cash and goods to keep their government afloat.
Egypt is building an underground barrier of metal sheets along its border with Gaza in an attempt to block the tunnels used to smuggle weapons, contraband goods and cash into Gaza.