Israelis quit Gaza after worst clash in over a year

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Israeli troops and tanks left the Gaza Strip today, witnesses said, ending an incursion into the Hamas-ruled enclave made after the bloodiest clash in 14 months killed two soldiers and at least one Palestinian.

The violence underscored the deadlock in US-mediated talks between Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose peace strategy has been sapped by Hamas hostility along with continued Israeli settlement construction on occupied land.

The impasse has triggered sporadic rocket attacks this month from Gaza which drew Israeli airstrikes. Yesterday, Palestinians ambushed soldiers who, the army said, had crossed the border to dismantle a mine. Two infantrymen were killed and two wounded.

The skirmish - in which the Israelis said they killed two Palestinian gunmen - was the fiercest since the three-week Gaza war of early 2009. Some 1,400 Palestinians, mainly civilians, and 13 Israelis, mainly troops, died in that conflict.

Hamas, having largely held fire since, announced that its men took part in the border clash, calling it self-defence. That drew veiled threats of escalation from Israel.

"We have been used to seeing breakaway (Palestinian) groups doing the firing, and Hamas trying to calm things down. Possibly it is loosening its grip, for all sorts of reasons," Defence Minister Ehud Barak told Israeli television yesterday.

"Should that indeed prove to be the case, then there will also be ramifications for Hamas," he said, but added: "We have no interest in returning the region to what was in the past."

Gazan doctors said a 23-year-old civilian was killed in the clash, and five other Palestinians wounded. Hamas and another faction that took part in the fighting said they lost no men.

Israel captured Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Egypt and Jordan in a 1967 war. It withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but has expanded Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Palestinians want statehood in all the territories.

Resisting US pressure in what analysts called a bruising encounter with President Barack Obama in Washington this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would not stop building in West Bank areas it annexed to East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu vowed to find a way out of the faceoff, but a meeting of his senior cabinet convened to discuss confidence-building measures ended without breakthroughs.

"Israeli construction policy in Jerusalem has remained the same for 42 years and isn't changing," spokesman Nir Hefez said.

Four Palestinians have died in West Bank clashes with Israeli forces this month. Obama wants Israel to halt settlement in East Jerusalem, an issue that created new friction when a plan to build 1,600 more houses was published as Vice President Joe Biden visited to urge indirect talks under US mediation.

"The prime minister set further discussion in the forum for the coming days, as well as continued contacts with the US administration in order to reach an agreed path for getting the diplomatic process moving," Hefez said after the meeting.