Israeli soldiers killed six Palestinian militants and wounded eleven other people in a lengthy pre-dawn clash in the Gaza Strip early Wednesday morning, the Israeli military and hospital officials said.
An Israeli military spokeswoman in Tel Aviv said troops on what she described as "routine operations" inside the salient close to the border fence came under fire from small arms and anti-tank missiles.
The soldiers returned the fire, called in air support, and reported hitting several of the gunmen, she said.
Officials at Gaza City's Shiffa hospital confirmed six died in the clash east of Gaza City.
Palestinian reports said the fatalities belonged to the armed wing of the radical Islamic Hamas movement ruling Gaza, and to the Popular Resistance Committees.
Israel launches nearly-nightly raids into the Gaza Strip, in operations designed to root out militants and prevent rockets from being launched at Israeli towns and villages adjacent to the enclave.
The Palestinian government, meanwhile, dismissed Israeli claims that a shooting attack in the southern West Bank Friday, which left two off-duty Israeli soldiers dead, was sparked by "political" motives and said the attackers had acted out of "criminal' intent.
Government spokesman and Minister of Foreign Affairs Riad Malki told Voice of Palestine Radio that the two Palestinians involved in the shooting, in which a third attacker was also killed, were arrested and confessed that their purpose was to steal the soldiers' weapons in order to to sell them for a profit.
He charged that Israel was taking advantage of this attack to justify its failure to implement its obligations under the international road map peace plan, which calls on Israel to remove military road blocks in the West Bank and allow more freedom of movement for Palestinians.
Malki also rejected Israeli accusations that the attackers came from President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement and that one of them was a member of the national security force.
An Israeli government statement Tuesday dismissed Palestinian accounts of the incident as being contradicted by information in its possession and by the confessions of the two attackers, who, it said, had turned themselves in to avoid being arrested by the Israelis.
The Palestinian statements, the Israeli communique said, "are designed to obviate the Palestinian Authority's responsibility for the incident mainly due to the fact that the murders were perpetrated by Fatah security apparatus activists."
Also Wednesday, more than 2,000 Palestinians began returning from the Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, crossed into Gaza, after a five day limbo in Egypt, during which two women pilgrims died.
The pilgrims had been stranded because Egypt, under pressure from Israel, refused to let them through its border crossing of Rafah with the Gaza Strip.
The Rafah crossing has been shut down since the radical Islamic Hamas movement violently seized sole control of the Gaza Strip from security forces answering to Abbas and Fatah.
Egypt, in a one-off gesture for the Haj, allowed hundreds of Palestinian pilgrims to cross through Rafah on their way to Saudi Arabia.
But Israel immediately filed a protest, saying it was concerned hard-core militants were likely to use the opportunity to travel abroad to training, receive financing or escape arrest.
Egyptian authorities then ordered the Hamas-sponsored pilgrims to return to Gaza via the Israeli-run crossing of Kerem Shalom, on Egypt's border with Israel just east of the Strip.
But most of the pilgrims, many of whom are Hamas supporters or activists, refused, fearing arrest by Israel.
Taher al-Nounou,the spokesman for the de-facto Hamas administration in Gaza, said Wednesday that Egypt gave way and informed the pilgrims they would be allowed to return through the Rafah crossing.
The pilgrims had started a hunger strike after a second woman died while waiting to return to their Gaza homes. Palestinian medical officials said Mariam Adwan died due to the cold weather while being stranded in a makeshift camp in the Egyptian city of al-Arish, several tens of kilometres south of Gaza.
Another woman had died in a scuffle between hundreds of pilgrims and Egyptian security forces. The Palestinian Ma'an news agency reported the stranded pilgrims had tried to force their way through the Rafah crossing but the Egyptian police stopped them.
TAGS: Middle-East IsraelGaza