The assailants, dressed in Palestinian police uniforms, were killed in the gunbattle. The Israeli soldiers killed were members of the army’s Desert Reconnaissance Battalion.
The raid was the first attack against Israel since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s December 16 call for a halt to violence. Arafat has faced increasing international pressure to crack down on escalating violence, and reiterated today that he is abiding by December’s truce.
The Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack saying it was in retaliation to Israel’s seizure of an arms ship last week.
The Israeli navy seized the vessel, the Akrein A, in the Red Sea some 300 miles from Israel’s port Eilat last week. It contained Katyusha rocket launchers, antitank missiles, mines and 3,400 pounds of C-4 explosive, according to Israeli officials.
Israel responded to Wednesday’s attack by seizing three Palestinian police stations in the southern Gaza Strip. The local police had previously abandoned the posts, fearing Israeli action.
Israeli army chief Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz said the attack proved “beyond any doubt” the Palestinian Authority is not fighting the infrastructure of terrorism.
According to Israeli television, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told ministers at a security cabinet meeting that Israel would stick to the principle of retaliating for every attack.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer described the attack as “particularly disturbing because it came at a time when the situation on the ground had been relatively quiet”, and demanded Palestinian officials arrest and eradicate Hamas.
The attacks came a week after U.S. Envoy Anthony Zinni visited the region in an attempt to bring the two sides together for truce talks.