KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip – Israeli tanks and bulldozers pushed into the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday, killing five Islamic militants and trapping hundreds of people in their homes, while another extremist died from an airstrike elsewhere in the territory.
The incursion – Israel’s broadest since Hamas seized control of the coastal strip last June – came a day before the first Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in seven years, casting a pall over the negotiations and underscoring the threat that Hamas poses to implementing any accord.
Palestinian officials said the offensive, along with a construction project in the Har Homa neighborhood of disputed East Jerusalem, threatened to sabotage the talks. They said the plan to build 307 apartments in the traditionally Arab area would dominate today’s meeting.
“The decision to build new housing units in Har Homa created a lot of problems for the credibility of the peace process,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
The State Department, which has criticized Israel for planning new apartments in the West Bank, sought to play down expectations for the talks’ opening day, saying it was envisioned only as an organizational meeting.
“If they choose to address substance, then, of course, that is going to be up to them, and we would encourage them to move as fast as they are able to move together,” spokesman Sean McCormack said.
McCormack declined to comment on Israel’s military thrust into Gaza, but noted militant attacks on Israeli towns are continuing.
Since the Hamas takeover in Gaza, Israel has carried out frequent airstrikes and ground incursions in response to near daily Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli border communities. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group and holds it responsible for all attacks launched from Gaza.
At the same time, Israel has been pursuing a peace agreement with the rival West Bank government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces in Gaza were routed by the Islamic militants of Hamas in June.