VIDEO - Day of battle in Gaza Strip: A soldier and a tank commander, a second lieutenant, were killed Sunday morning, and another soldier was kidnapped after a Palestinian terror cell launched a combined attack on an Israel Defense Forces post in the southern Gaza Strip, near Kibbutz Kerem Shalom.
The names of the soldiers killed in the attack were cleared for publication Sunday afternoon: Lieutenant Hanan Barak (20) from Arad and Sergeant Pavel Slocker from Dimona. Barak and Slocker were killed after terrorists fired a missile at their tank.
Several soldiers were lightly to moderately injured in the incident and were taken by helicopter to the Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva.
IDF chief of staff Lieutenant-General Dan Halutz said during a press conference at Kibbutz Kerem Shalom that "as far as the IDF knows, the abducted soldier is alive."
"I really cannot go into details, but we have several reasons to believe that he is alive. The estimation was made based on the information we have," he said.
Sources in the Palestinian organizations that took part in the attack told media outlets in the Palestinian Authority that "the activists are providing the abducted soldier with medical treatment in order to use him as a bargaining chip and hold negotiations for a hostage exchange deal."
According to the sources, the soldier is seriously wounded.
Halutz stressed that "the Palestinians are responsible for the abducted soldier's fate, and we will do everything we can in order to return him. There is no doubt that this caught us by surprise, in certain aspects, without a concrete warning."
The chief of staff admitted that "the incident in Kerem Shalom caught us unprepared. This incident is a hundred times worse because this is also not the consequence we hope for in such an encounter."
"We have to understand that this war against terror is an ongoing war and we have to do all we can on a continual basis to deal with it. Apparently our breaks are misinterpreted by the other side, and things speak for themselves," he added.
Regarding the future, Halutz noted that a ground operation was still on the agenda.
"I don’t want to voice conclusive remarks on the future, as I believe we should first investigate things to the end. We must of course accept the instructions from the political echelon and then decided what to do."
A representative of the Northern Command announced Sunday afternoon that the abducted soldier's family received the news that he is still alive. The source noted that the family members were very excited to hear the news and were in their home waiting for further information.
Following the incident, IDF forces entered areas in the southern Strip. Sources in the Strip reported that different elements, including some in Egypt and Jordan, are mediating between Israel and the Palestinian Authority through the Palestinian security organizations in a bid to find out what happened to the kidnapped soldier.
Sources in the government added that talks are being held in the European Union and in the United States in a bid to locate the missing soldier. Government officials refused to say whether the PA answered their calls.
The IDF Spokesperson's Office said: "The terror attack was led by senior Hamas members in the Gaza Strip and was approved by the Hamas leadership. The IDF views the incident with severity and sees the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government responsible for the terror attack and for the fate of the missing soldier."
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Defense Minister Amir Peretz reported to the ministers during Sunday's cabinet meeting that the attack in Kerem Shalom was mainly implemented by "hurling grenades at a tank."
Peretz said that according to reports received by the defense establishment, the attack was carried out by Hamas.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his ministers that "Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) and (Palestinian Prime Minister) Ismail Haniyeh are the people responsible for the attack."
IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Dan Halutz held a meeting Sunday morning to asses the situation in southern Gaza. The IDF views the incident as extremely severe, and according to estimates, the army will recommend the government to launch a large-scale operation in Gaza in wake of the incident.
IDF APC hit in incident (Photo: Amir Cohen)
The well-planned attack on the post started, at 5:40 a.m., according to the IDF. Eight armed Palestinians infiltrated Israel through a tunnel leading from the Strip into Israel's territory, and split into three teams once they came out. One team approached an armored personnel carrier stationed at the place and fired at it. The APC was empty and no injuries were reported in that attack.
Another group simultaneously fired a missile and hurled grenades at a tank standing nearby. The missile hit the tank's rear, hurting the four soldiers that were inside. Two were immediately killed, a third soldier sustained injuries and the fourth was initially reported missing. As the incident developed, security officials came to believe that the soldier has been kidnapped.
During the attack, a third terrorist team moved in the direction of a desert patrol army post and engaged in a shooting battle with the soldiers. An explosive device was also activated at the place. Three soldiers sustained light-to-moderate injuries as a result of the blast, and some of the terrorists were hurt as well.
From the moment the incident was first reported of, the Southern Command and the General Staff have held constant meetings to evaluate the situation, headed by Army Chief Dan Halutz, in a bid to track down the cell behind the kidnapping and return the soldier to Israel.
At the initial stage, heavy equipment was deployed in the area where the incident occurred and where the tunnel was located, in order to try and uncover the terrorists' path. Large forces, including special units, have gone on a state of alert and are preparing to enter Rafah in a bid to locate the abducted soldier.
The IDF has also asked the Egyptian policemen stationed on the border to secure the area and make sure the terrorists don’t try and transfer the solider to Egypt.
While the army has not completed investigating the occurrences in Kerem Shalom, difficult questions arise regarding the way the terrorists managed to infiltrate Israel and carry out the attack. One of the main questions is whether the deployment of the forces in the area was adequate. It is also unclear why no forces provided covering fire for the tank and APC at the post.
Three organizations claim responsibility for operation
A Palestinian security official told Ynet that the terrorists who launched the attack Sunday morning arrived from Sinai and not from the Strip. According to the source, the fact that the attackers were armed and managed to enter the post without disruption testifies to the fact that they may have arrived from the Egyptian, not the Palestinian side.
IDF soldiers at scene of incident (Photo: Amir Cohen)
Sources at the Popular Resistance Committees claimed that organization members, along with gunmen from Hamas and a new organization called "Army of Islam," fired an anti-tank missile at an IDF post in the southern Strip and exchanged fire with the troops.
According to the PRC, "this is an operation of high quality, during which some of the people were parachuted close to the crossing."
One of the killed terrorists is Muhammad Fruana, an Izz al-Din al-Qassam member from Rafah.
A source at the PRC defined the operation as "the ongoing illusion operation." According to the source, "the operation was aimed at making it clear that the Israeli security is an illusion. Israelis will have no security as long as the Palestinians have no security."
A spokesman for the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' military wing, claimed that there were no Palestinian casualties in the operation. The spokesman, Abu Ubaidah, said that "all the fighters who took part in the operation returned to their bases alive."
Sources at the PRC said that "the operation was a response to the assassination of the organization's leader, Jamal Abu Samhadana, who was killed by the IDF earlier this month, and a response to the killing of head of the group's military wing, Khalil al-Quqa, who was assassinated by the IDF about three months ago."
Series of attempts to carry out attacks
Since the IDF pullout from Gaza, soldiers foiled attempts of dozens of terror cells to carry out a terror attack on the border fence in the Strip. The cells attempted to place an explosive device or fire at forces patrolling the area.
In most cases, the cells were spotted in time by IDF soldiers, sometimes with the assistance of the Israel Air Force.
Scene of incident, Sunday morning (Photo: Amir Cohen)
IDF sources noted that in spite of the fact that attacks were foiled and the difficulty terrorists have encountered when trying to carry out attacks. So far, more than 50 terrorists were killed on the border fence.
"It is obvious," a senior military source recently said, "that the terror cells are constantly looking for new, more efficient ways to hurt soldiers. We are following them and will know which solutions to provide."
The IDF operation Sunday morning came following the entry of IDF soldiers into the Gaza Strip Saturday, during which two armed Hamas members were arrested in a house in the southern Strip, according to Palestinian eyewitnesses.
Palestinian sources reported that a special IDF force was operating south of the Sufa crossing, east of Rafah. The Palestinians reported that the force advanced hundreds of meters into the Palestinian Authority territory.
According to the report, the soldiers operating in the area early Saturday arrested two brothers, Mustafa and Osama Muammar, during the operation. Eyewitnesses claimed that the troops also beat the detainees' father, Ali Muammar, who was in need of medical treatment at the city's European Hospital.
A senior IDF officer in the Southern Command told Ynet last month that the IDF will continue to operate in the Gaza Strip.
"Such operations will continue in the future," the officer said about a day after IDF soldiers operated inside the Palestinian area and hurt a Qassam launching cell.
"Once they understand we are on the ground, in addition to artillery fire and aerial operations, their sense of being prosecuted intensifies. We have information that after the operation they changed their plans," the officer said.
The defense establishment is looking into a connection between Sunday morning's operation and warnings that led to the closing of the Sufa crossing last week. The Kerem Shalom crossing was also closed on Friday for similar reasons, and it is still unclear whether Sunday's attack was related to the warnings.
Ali Waked, Anat Barshkovsky and Shmulik Hadad contributed to the report