GAZA CITY – Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip crossed into Israel and killed two civilians at a vital fuel depot Wednesday. The surprise attack prompted an immediate Israeli military push into Gaza that threatened to spiral into wider clashes.
At least 20 Israeli tanks rushed into northern Gaza in the wake of the midafternoon attacks at the Nahal Oz terminal, currently the only conduit for gasoline shipped into the coastal strip. Subsequent Israeli shelling and airstrikes killed at least nine Palestinians, officials in Gaza said.
The radical Palestinian faction Islamic Jihad, along with Mujahedin Brigades and the Popular Resistance Committees, claimed responsibility for the attack. Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, did not claim a role, but Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum later praised the attacks as “heroic.”
Israeli officials have repeatedly stated that they hold Hamas responsible for the activities of all Gaza militant groups. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said the attack on the coastal area’s vital fuel lifeline shows the militants’ “total and complete disregard” for the well-being of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.
At least four gunmen “infiltrated the security fence” outside Nahal Oz and shot two Israelis working at the fuel terminal, said an Israeli army spokeswoman.
Israeli forces on patrol nearby responded to the scene and killed two of the attackers, but at least two others escaped back into Gaza.
An airstrike on a car fleeing the scene is believed to have killed two attackers, the army spokeswoman said.
The surprise raid was intended to kidnap Israeli soldiers, said Abu Ahmed, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad. A similar cross-border ambush in June 2006 succeeded in kidnapping Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who remains in captivity somewhere in Gaza.
Islamic Jihad also claimed responsibility for the shooting death earlier Wednesday of an Israeli soldier in a battle near the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis.
The attack at the depot is likely to revive the long-standing debate over Israel’s continued supply of fuel and humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip.
“This murderous terror attack could have been avoided had the government stopped supplying fuel and electricity to the Gaza Strip,” said right-wing politician and former Cabinet minister Avigdor Lieberman. “The government must disengage from Gaza totally and finally.”
Israel, with assistance from Egypt, sealed Gaza’s borders after Hamas took control of the narrow coastal strip last summer. But Israel also allows regular truckloads of humanitarian aid to enter and supplies limited amounts of electricity, gasoline and heating fuel to stave off humanitarian disaster.
An estimated nearly 20,000 gallons of gasoline are pumped through Nahal Oz every day, Israeli officials said. The terminal, which is run by a private Israeli company and staffed by civilians, was shut down indefinitely after the attack.
An extended closure of Nahal Oz will likely prompt an immediate fuel crisis in Gaza.