GAZA CITY -- An Israeli helicopter fired into the Gaza Strip yesterday, killing a member of a militant squad that was clashing with Israeli forces in one of the most serious breaches of a four-month-old cease-fire, Palestinian officials said.
The Israeli military said the air attack was aimed at militants planting a bomb along the border fence. It denied sending ground forces into the coastal territory.
But Palestinian officials who monitor the border said fighting erupted before dawn when plainclothes Israeli special forces slipped across the fence and were discovered by fighters from two small militant groups that refuse to honor the Nov. 26 truce.
The helicopter attack, apparently aimed at covering the special forces' retreat, was part of a more aggressive Israeli policy that itself is straining the cease-fire. In the previous two weeks, Israel has staged an airstrike and a brief ground incursion against Palestinian gunmen, killing one in each operation.
Palestinian witnesses who described yesterday's 90-minute battle said the Israeli helicopter fired at least four missiles between the border fence and the Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, wounding three armed Palestinians.
One of them, Fuad Maruf, 22, of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was killed.
That group and Islamic Jihad, operating together, said they had been firing rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons at the Israeli special forces and setting off explosives along the fence.
The Gaza clashes are a setback for a U.S. effort, pressed during three visits to the region by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice since November, to extend the Gaza truce to the West Bank.
Israeli officials have rebuffed the proposal, demanding full compliance with the Gaza truce first. They say militant groups in Gaza, including Hamas, which shares power in the Palestinian Authority government, have been exploiting the cease-fire to smuggle explosives, missiles and other weapons into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt.
During the truce, Palestinians have continued to fire crude Kassam rockets into Israel, although at a slower rate.
Israeli officials say their recent incursions into Gaza have been to check for bombs or strike at militants about to launch attacks, and do not amount to cease-fire violations.
But the Israeli military has been preparing openly for a possible large-scale invasion of Gaza. And while Prime Minister Ehud Olmert so far has declined to authorize such an offensive, Defense Minister Amir Peretz last week authorized limited operations along the border to halt rocket launchings and bombings.
Israel withdrew its military bases and settlers from Gaza in September 2005, ending a 38-year occupation. After militants from Hamas and other groups seized an Israeli soldier from his post along the Gaza border, Israeli troops frequently re-entered the territory and engaged in combat.
The soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, is still being held, and his captivity is another obstacle to peace efforts. For months, the two sides have negotiated through Egyptian mediators for his release.
Richard Boudreaux and Rushdi Abu Alouf write for the Los Angeles Times.