Two Israeli civilians were killed yesterday by Palestinian gunmen who managed to break through Gaza's border fence in a daylight attack on the nearby main fuel depot of Nahal Oz.
The attack threatened to presage a fresh outbreak of violence after the month of relative quiet in Gaza that followed the major Israeli incursion into the Jabalya district of northern Gaza that resulted in the deaths of 120 Palestinians.
The Israeli military said it had shot dead two of the Palestinian attackers as they tried to flee back into Gaza. Two other militants escaped across the Strip's eastern border.
While responsibility for the attack was claimed by Islamic Jihad and two smaller factions – the Popular Resistance Committees and the Mujahadeen Brigades – the Israeli government was quick to lay the blame on Hamas, which has controlled the Strip since its enforced takeover in June.
Two Palestinians, said by the military to have been militants connected to the attack, were later killed in an air strike on a car in northern Gaza. Palestinian medics said that Israeli tank fire killed three civilians and one militant in eastern Gaza after the attack.
The renewed combat came hours after an Israeli soldier and a Hamas militant had been killed in exchanges of fire during a ground incursion by Israeli forces into southern Gaza.
As Israeli security forces cordoned off the area, witnesses reported seeing plumes of smoke rising from the area of the fuel depot, which is the main supply line for Gaza's only power station.
Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister, said Hamas was "responsible and will be held accountable" for the attack. He added: "The Hamas attack on the fuel terminal that supplies Gaza its energy shows their total and complete disregard for the civilian population of Gaza." He said that Gaza civilians were "hostage" to the Islamic faction's "extremist and hateful agenda".
Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, praised the attack as "heroic and courageous". He said Hamas was not responsible, but affirmed his group's support for "resistance". An Islamic Jihad spokesman, Abu Ahmad, called the raid a "unique and complicated operation".
Major Tal Levram, an Israeli army spokesman, told Associated Press the army believed the militants were trying to kidnap a soldier or attack the nearby border kibbutz of Nahal Oz, but had been thwarted by the military's swift response.
"It could have been much worse," he added.
A spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees told Al Jazeera that the goal had been to kidnap Israeli soldiers.
The Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit is still being held as a hostage after being seized by Gaza militants, including members of Hamas, in a June 2006 raid on the military post at Kerem Shalom, close to the crossing between south-eastern Gaza and Israel.
The military said that militants had launched 15 mortar shells at Israeli forces during the attack, in what Major Levram said was a diversionary tactic. Further shells were fired towards Nahal Oz later in the day.
Moran Freibach, 37, of the Nahal Oz kibbutz, said the army had warned residents not to leave their homes in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
On Tuesday, a Hamas official threatened fresh breaches of Gaza's borders to break the blockade of the Strip imposed by Israel since June.
Egyptian troops went on the alert close to the Gaza border as the Foreign Ministry in Cairo issued a stern warning against any repeat of the breach last January when Hamas destroyed large sections of the border wall at Rafah.
The breach allowed many tens of thousands of Gazans to pour across the border unchecked for 10 days, to stock up on goods unobtainable or prohibitively expensive because of the six-month embargo on all but essential humanitarian supplies.
The ministry maintained that the Hamas threat had been timed to coincide with what it called "the concocted problems inside Egypt". The statement did not amplify the remark but it appeared to refer to angry demonstrations in Egypt against rising food prices that have led to violent clashes between police and protesters.
A 15-year-old boy died from gunshot wounds on Tuesday after being injured in another food demonstration in the north Egyptian city of Mahalla Al-Kobra.