GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Palestinian militants besieged a crucial Israel-Gaza border crossing yesterday, wounding 16 Israeli soldiers in a barrage of mortar fire and car bombs.
Three Palestinian gunmen died in the attack on the Kerem Shalom crossing, which follows a string of smaller militant raids on the other entry points through which vital humanitarian supplies and fuel enter Gaza.
Hamas' military wing, the Izzidin al-Qassam Brigade, claimed responsibility for the raid. A senior Israeli army commander called it the largest militant operation since Israeli troops and settlers withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
"It was an attempt to abduct and kill as many soldiers as possible," Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant told reporters during a visit to Kerem Shalom.
An impoverished coastal strip of about 1.4 million, Gaza remains a pariah mini-state under the control of Hamas. The militant group won parliamentary elections in 2006 and later routed forces loyal to the rival Fatah party after a unity government collapsed last summer.
Israel, with U.S. backing and Egypt's assistance, sealed Gaza after the Hamas takeover. But limited amounts of humanitarian aid and fuel are allowed in through a series of border crossings such as Kerem Shalom.
About 6 a.m. yesterday, an Israeli army spokeswoman said, three vehicles approached the crossing: two jeeps modified to look like Israeli army vehicles and an armored personnel carrier of the type used by Palestinian security forces.
At least one of the jeeps exploded near a group of Israeli soldiers. Then, as mortar rounds begun raining down, several men emerged from the armored vehicle and opened fire, said the army spokeswoman, Maj. Avital Leibovich.
"It could have been much worse," said Leibovich, who credited the soldiers' rapid response and the protection provided by an Israeli armored vehicle with preventing greater casualties.
The Qassam Brigade offered a slightly different account of the attack.
A spokesman known as Abu Obeida said that three car bombs were detonated and a fourth car, also rigged to explode, withdrew from the battle.
Thirteen of the 16 wounded soldiers were lightly injured, and one was severely wounded, Leibovich said.
Kerem Shalom, which is administered by Israeli civilians, was closed yesterday for the weekend.
Footage broadcast on Al-Jazeera Arabic-language satellite news channel showed the three militant vehicles setting out for their mission through thick dawn fog.
A video later distributed by the Qassam Brigade showed the four attackers reading statements, but the image of a fourth man who survived the raid was blacked out, suggesting he could still at large.
Border crossings have become a frequent recent target for militant raids, signaling a possible tactical shift.
On April 9, gunmen killed two Israeli civilian workers at the Nahal Oz fuel transfer terminal, which supplies fuel to Gaza.
On Thursday, a Palestinian sniper fired on Israeli soldiers near Nahal Oz, and two gunmen were wounded trying to infiltrate Kerem Shalom.
Leibovich said that Thursday's much smaller attack at Kerem Shalom might have been a scouting mission to measure Israeli response time at the crossing.
Israeli officials accuse Hamas of cynically exploiting the deprivation of Gaza residents.
"They know when we target a crossing, we have no choice but to close it. They're looking for a way to stop the flow of supplies to civilians," Leibovich said. "They ride on the backs of the civilians all the time."
The emphasis on targeting crossing points also might be motivated by a standing desire by Gaza militant groups to kidnap Israeli soldiers as bargaining chips. In a similar raid near Kerem Shalom in June 2006, attackers captured Israeli army Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who remains captive somewhere in Gaza.
The armored vehicle used in yesterday's attack was one of the dozens supplied by the international community and used by security forces of the Fatah party. Hamas inherited the equipment when it vanquished Fatah forces last summer, but it's unclear how many working armored vehicles the group possesses.
Four other Palestinians, three of them Qassam cadres, died in Israeli airstrikes yesterday, bringing the death toll to seven, the group said.
Rushdi Abu Alouf and Ashraf Khalil write for the Los Angeles Times.