Car bombings and air raids near the Israeli border and in Gaza threaten to derail a delicate security agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. (Photo AFP / Getty Images)
Jerusalem - U.S. President Barack Obama's new Mideast envoy sought Wednesday to boost a 10-day-old Gaza ceasefire that was thrown into turmoil, as Israeli warplanes pounded Gaza smuggling tunnels in retaliation for a Palestinian bombing that killed a soldier.
The Israeli cabinet met to consider how far to go in its response to Tuesday's bombing. U.S. envoy George Mitchell said it was "critical" that the ceasefire be extended, as he met Egypt's president before heading to Jerusalem.
The violence is the worst since Israel and Hamas separately declared ceasefires on Jan. 18 to end a three-week Israeli offensive against the Palestinian militant group in the Gaza Strip. Since withdrawing its troops, Israel has threatened to retaliate hard for any violations of the informal truce.
The soldier was killed Tuesday on Israel's frontier with the Gaza Strip by a roadside bomb planted on the Gaza side and set off by remote control, the military said. Three other soldiers patrolling the border were injured.
Israel responded swiftly, sending tanks and bulldozers into northern Gaza to plow up the attack site and launching an air strike that wounded a Hamas militant "who was prominent in the organization accountable for the attack," the military said. Hamas said the Israeli strike injured one of its men as he rode a motorcycle in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis.
Air strikes early Wednesday targeted the network of tunnels used to smuggle arms, money and people into Gaza from Egypt. Israel bombed the tunnels heavily during the war, but smugglers resumed work after the ceasefire.
There was no claim of responsibility for Tuesday's bombing, but Ramattan, a Palestinian news agency, released a video of the roadside bombing allegedly filmed by militants it did not identify.
The images showed a large explosion next to a jeep moving on the Israeli side of the border fence. A huge plume of smoke emerges as the jeep stops. Two Israeli soldiers are then seen running toward the jeep, and gunfire is directed at them before a secondary blast hits them, too.
"Hamas unfortunately controls the Gaza strip and is directly responsible for all hostile fire from Gaza into Israel," government spokesman Mark Regev told The Associated Press.
"Israel wants the quiet in the south to continue but yesterday's attack is a deliberate provocation designed to undermine and torpedo the calm. If Hamas acts to undermine the cease-fire, it will have no one but itself to blame for the consequences," he said.
The violence cast a shadow over the start of Mr. Mitchell's tour. Mr. Obama said his envoy would listen to all sides to then craft an approach for moving forward with stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
"The United States is committed to vigorously pursuing lasting peace and stability in the region," Mr. Mitchell said after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo. He said his tour less than a week after Mr. Obama's inauguration "is clear and tangible evidence to this commitment."
Before his tour, Israeli officials said Mr. Mitchell would also discuss ways to solidify the ceasefire into a longer term truce - a complicated prospect that will require international arrangements to ensure that border crossings into Gaza are opened while preventing Hamas from rearming by smuggling in weapons.
The American envoy was to head later in the day to Jerusalem to meet Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, top security officials and pro-Western Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
Mr. Mitchell has no plans to meet with Hamas, which the U.S., Israel and European Union consider a terrorist group. Hamas seized Gaza from forces loyal to Mr. Abbas in June, 2007. Hamas' control of Gaza, and its refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist, are considered major obstacles to peace efforts.
Jewish settlers in the West Bank were planning a Jerusalem demonstration to coincide with the visit by Mr. Mitchell, who in a 2001 report urged Israel to freeze settlements in the West Bank.
Yishay Hollender, a spokesman for settlers' umbrella group, the Yesha Council, said settlers will drive to Jerusalem a float depicting the dangers to Israel of a Palestinian state as a "reception" for Mr. Mitchell.
The Israeli pro-peace group Peace Now released a report Wednesday saying West Bank settlements expanded more in 2008 than they had the previous year. The report said 1,257 new structures were built in settlements during 2008, compared to 800 in 2007, an increase of 57 per cent.
The group said building more than doubled in settler outposts, which unlike settlements are not recognized by the Israeli government - with 261 structures erected in 2008, compared to 98 the year before.
The Israeli government has promised to dismantle outposts. The Palestinians demand a complete halt to settlement building in the West Bank during peace negotiations, saying their expansion is taking land they demand for an independent state.
At his West Bank headquarters, Mr. Abbas said Tuesday he was looking forward to working with the new administration.
The Israeli offensive killed nearly 1,300 people, including hundreds of civilians, and caused an estimated $2-billion in damage. The international community is trying to broker a long-term ceasefire and figure out how to rebuild the coastal territory.