TENSION has been high all week following the deaths of four Palestinian youths. The youths were accused by the Israeli army of throwing stones at them.
The tension reached breaking point on Friday afternoon when militants clashed with Israeli army soldiers resulting in a gun battle which left two Israeli soldiers and two militants dead. Two other Israeli soldiers were wounded, one seriously. The Israeli army confirmed it had entered Gaza and clashed with militants. One of its soldiers killed was the deputy commander of his regiment. The other was in the reserves.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Hamas would be held responsible. He repeatedly blamed Hamas although in an extraordinary admission he conceded Hamas had been trying to calm things down and rein in other military groups.
"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," the defense minister told Israel's Channel 2 television.
"Should that indeed prove to be the case, then there will also be ramifications for Hamas," Barak said.
A Hamas spokesman Abu Obeida told Reuters the clash involved members of the al-Qassam Brigades, the miltant wing of the group, but insisted the men fired in self-defense.
The five Israeli tanks and two bulldozers withdrew from Gaza on Saturday afternoon.
The Israeli soldiers deaths' are the first since the end of Operation Cast Lead in January last year. The soldiers killed were identified as Major Eliraz Peretz, 31, of Eli, deputy commander of the Golani Brigade's Battalion 12, and Staff Sergeant Ilan Sviatkovsky of Rishon Lezion.
One of the two wounded soldiers was in intensive care Saturday on life support.
Another Israeli soldier was killed on Monday, as a result of friendly fire. A member of an Israeli tank crew stopped three Palestinians who were unarmed and looking for work. A second Israeli patrol happened on the scene and opened fire on the Palestinians not knowing an Israeli soldier was among them. The soldier was killed instantly. The Israeli army told the BBC it is investigating the incident.