Two soldiers were moderately wounded and 11 more sustained light wounds early Saturday morning after a Palestinian terror cell detonated a car bomb at the Kerem Shalom goods crossing near the security fence along the border in the southern Gaza Strip.
Exchanges of fire ensued as IDF troops engaged the Palestinian gunmen, who were apparently attempting to infiltrate the crossing under the cover of heavy fog. A second car bomb, which had also been driven into the crossing, failed to detonate.
The bombing constitutes the fifth Palestinian assault on Gaza border crossings since last week.
Palestinian sources report that the Hamas cell tried to use mortar shells and gunfire to distract forces while one or more terrorists tried to cross into the Israeli side of Kerem Shalom.
According to the sources the fighting is taking place primarily on the Palestinian side as IDF soldiers crossed into Gaza in pursuit of the gunmen, three of whom have been confirmed killed.
Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the military wing of Hamas, the al-Qassam Brigades, claimed responsibility for the attack on behalf of Hamas.
Israeli residents of communities close to Gaza have been instructed to remain in their homes due to concerns of a possible infiltration. On Thursday security forces thwarted another infiltration attempt in the same area.
IDF Southern Command Chief Major-General Yoav Galant said Saturday that the attack on the Kerem Shalom crossing was "the biggest we've seen since the disengagement."
"Hamas is using Israel's generosity and goes after the crossings used to make sure vital Palestinian needs are met," he said, adding the attack was a "strategic" one, aimed at disrupting Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations
Military sources said that Saturday's confrontation appears to be a complex attack attempt, which was likely planned some time in advance and involved several terror cells. An initial probe into the incident indicates IDF troops were well deployed and prevented a much larger terror attack from taking place.
The army said that the terror cell infiltrated the cargo terminal with a car rigged with explosives, detonated it and then opened fire at the soldiers manning the crossing in an attempt to breach the Israeli side of the crossing.
"This is a combined attack, meticulously planned and it would appear that its timing, on the eve of Passover, is not accidental. There is an increase in attempts to strike at IDF soldiers on the border and at the border crossings through which we supply humanitarian aid to the Palestinian population," said a military official. The IDF estimates that the gunmen set out to carry out a killing spree at the crossing and then abduct Israeli soldiers.
"This is a far more complex attack than the incident in which Cpl. Gilad Shalit was captured in (June, 2006)," he said.
IDF soldiers patrolling the southern sector (Photo: Tsafrir Abayov)
"The terror organizations are trying to force Israel to stop transferring goods, to exacerbate the difficult situation in the Gaza Strip and then accuse Israel of causing it," he added.
The Kerem Shalom crossing is a vital cargo artery, through which dozens of trucks transporting goods into Gaza pass every day. The crossing is not open on Saturdays and troops from the Bedouin Desert Reconnaissance Unit secure the facility.
The soldiers received emergency medical attention at the scene before being evacuated by helicopter to the Soroka hospital in Beersheba for further treatment. Trauma unit director at Soroka, Dr. Gadi Shaked, told Ynet that the injuries sustained by the soldiers wounded at the Kerem Shalom crossing indicate they were caught in a large blast.
The soldiers suffer from penetrative wounds and burns on various parts of their bodies. One of the soldiers will require surgery but his life is not in jeopardy.
This past Thursday an additional Palestinian infiltration attempt through Kerem Shalom was also thwarted. Bedouin Reconnaissance troops spotted three armed Palestinians at the scene and opened fire at them. One gunman was killed and another was wounded in the ensuing exchange of fire. The third gunman fled the scene unharmed. No IDF soldiers were wounded.
On Wednesday three Israeli soldiers were killed as forces engaged several gunmen identified advancing towards the border near Kibbutz Be'eri.
Later on Saturday morning Palestinian sources reported IAF fighters struck a Hamas munitions warehouse near the Kissufim crossing in central Gaza. The army confirmed a tank fired towards a
Palestinian vehicle near Kissufim. The incident is apparently unrelated to the Kerem Shalom attack.
A Hamas operative belonging to the group's military wing was killed in an IDF strike in northern Gaza on Friday night, according to Palestinian security officials. The man has been identified as 22-year-old Imad Abu-Amar.
Yonat Atlas and Ali Waked contributed to this report