KEREM SHALOM, Israel -- The Israeli government threatened drastic consequences yesterday after a rare cross-border raid by Palestinian militants that left two Israeli soldiers dead and another missing, apparently seized by the attackers.
The capture of an Israeli soldier, the first such abduction by Palestinian militants in a dozen years, sent shock waves through Israel, where most citizens feel a strong familial connection to the army.
The incident heightened Israeli-Palestinian tensions over a series of violent incidents in the Gaza Strip, including a campaign of Israeli airstrikes aimed at Palestinian militants that has resulted in civilian casualties.
The attack was the first ground assault by Palestinians on a military target in Israel since its withdrawal last summer from Gaza, and followed by a day Israel's first raid into the seaside strip since the pullout.
Israel said the attack was carried out by members of Hamas' military wing, but Palestinian officials described the militants as primarily members of two splinter groups.
The attackers, carrying automatic rifles, anti-tank missiles and grenades, tunneled under the fence that separates Israel and the Gaza Strip and killed two Israeli soldiers and seriously wounded a third. Two of the attackers were killed.
Israeli military officials described a daring operation. The pre-dawn assault occurred just north of Kerem Shalom, an agricultural kibbutz near the Gaza border fence.
Brig. Gen Aviv Kochavi, who commands the Israeli army division surrounding Gaza, said eight attackers apparently crawled through a tunnel that extended nearly 900 feet into Israel, far enough to enable them to sneak up on Israeli troops from behind. Kochavi, speaking at a briefing near the scene, said construction of the tunnel could have taken months.
After emerging from the tunnel, the militants broke into three groups, the army said. One group attacked an armored personnel carrier that was parked near the border as a decoy. There were no injuries. A second group stormed a watchtower but were spotted by Israeli troops, who opened fire and killed two militants.
The rest attacked an Israeli tank, firing an anti-tank missile and lobbing explosives. Two members of the tank crew died, the army said, and another was gravely wounded. The fourth, later identified by Israeli news media as Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19, was believed to have been seized by the attackers and taken into the Gaza Strip. The militants cut through the fence to return to the Palestinian side.
After the raid, Israeli forces, backed by two tanks and a helicopter, staged a brief incursion into Gaza to search for the assailants and the missing soldier. Israeli troops have entered Gaza several times this year in small numbers for raids but refrained from any large-scale offensive, though some senior Israeli commanders have publicly urged that the coastal strip be reoccupied.
Israeli military officials said they had "many reasons" to believe that Shalit was alive, though almost certainly injured. Israel made it clear that it regarded the raid, together with the seizure of one of its soldiers, as a major escalation in the confrontation that has simmered since Hamas took power after winning parliamentary elections in January.
Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, Israel's military chief of staff, said Hamas was involved "from head to toe" and would be held responsible. Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israel would "do everything to return this soldier to his family."
"We hereby inform all those involved in determining his fate that as far as we are concerned, if any harm befalls this soldier, his blood will be on the hands of anyone involved - theirs and their leaders," Peretz said in a terse news conference. "We intend to react to this morning's incident in a way that will make clear to all those involved ... that the price will be painful."
It is a central tenet of the Israeli military that soldiers are not left behind on the battlefield, and the government has gone to great lengths to recover even the remains of slain troops. It has handed over large numbers of prisoners to the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia in exchange for the bodies of Israeli soldiers held by the group.
Palestinian militants with the Popular Resistance Committees claimed responsibility for yesterday's raid, saying it was meant to avenge Israel's killing this month of its leader, Jamal abu Samhadana, who was given a senior security post in the Hamas government. A hitherto unknown group calling itself the Islamic Army, described by some Palestinian officials as an offshoot of Hamas' military wing, also said it had played a role.
The Hamas government insisted it had no knowledge of the missing soldier and appealed publicly to his captors to refrain from harming him.
"We are calling on the resistance groups, if they do have the missing soldier ... to protect his life and treat him well," said Ghazi Hamad, a Palestinian government spokesman.
Laura King and Ken Ellingwood write for the Los Angeles Times.