GAZA (Reuters) - Israeli helicopters fired into the Gaza Strip on Saturday, killing a Palestinian militant, in what residents said was the fiercest exchange between Israeli forces and militants since a November truce.
The escalation came after Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz authorized limited strikes just inside Gaza. Ministry sources said they were to prevent militants from planting explosives, digging tunnels and firing rockets at Israeli towns.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on members of his presidential guard and national security forces to step up efforts to prevent the rocket fire so “that our people can lead a safe life”.
Tensions remain high in Gaza between secular Fatah and Islamist Hamas despite the formation of their unity government on March 17. Three Palestinians were wounded in clashes between Hamas and Fatah gunmen, witnesses and Hamas militants said.
Abbas said on Friday Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, abducted by Gaza militants 10 months ago in a cross-border raid, would be released soon.
Palestinian Information Minister Mustafa Barghouthi said on Saturday militants involved in the abduction had provided Israel for the first time with a list of Palestinian prisoners they want Israel to release in exchange for Shalit.
An official involved in negotiations over the soldier’s release denied this, saying reports over supposed progress in the talks were “incorrect or twisted”.
Israeli media quoted Israeli government sources as saying progress had been made during negotiations over Shalit’s release but that a deal was “a long way away”. There was no confirmation of whether Israel had received a list of Palestinian prisoners.
Israeli helicopters fired at least two missiles near the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip during the early morning strike, local residents said.
An Israeli army spokesman said the helicopters fired at a group of militants who had tried to plant an explosive device near the border fence.
Islamic Jihad said its militants and members of another group had been mounting an operation near the fence when the exchange of fire occurred.
Militants said they fired rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons at the Israeli forces, and detonated bombs they had planted near the border fence.
A member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine was killed in the exchange, Islamic Jihad said. At least two other militants were wounded.
Local residents said Israeli tanks had entered the area but the army denied this.
“The army has found 40 explosives planted in that area since the November ceasefire,” the army spokesman said.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit urged both Israel and the Palestinians not to carry out further attacks. He said Israeli actions did not “add to the ongoing efforts ... to bring the peace process back on track”.
On Monday, Peretz authorized limited operations against militants just inside Gaza despite the November ceasefire deal.
Some militant groups have carried on firing rockets into Israel from Gaza despite the truce. A rocket fired from Gaza hit a factory in the southern Israeli town of Sderot on Saturday causing a fire but no injuries, witnesses said.
Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, Yehuda Peretz in Sderot and Wael al-Ahmed in Jenin