Just hours after international mediators presented Israel and the Palestinians with a "road map" to peace, Israeli troops stormed a militant stronghold in the Gaza Strip early yesterday. Seven Palestinians were killed in an ensuing gunfight, including a young child.
The fighting came as Israeli and Palestinian leaders voiced conflicting interpretations of the long-awaited peace plan, the latest attempt by international mediators to end 31 months of violence.
Diplomats representing the so-called Quartet of Mideast mediators -- the US, EU, UN and Russia -- presented the peace plan to Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Wednesday after Mahmoud Abbas took office as Palestinian prime minister.
But just hours after the unveiling of the plan, Israeli troops raided an eastern suburb of Gaza City, surrounding the house of top Hamas fugitive Yousef Abu Hein.
The raid came a day after a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at a Tel Aviv bar, killing himself and three bystanders. Hamas said it and another Palestinian group carried out the Wednesday attack, however it was not clear whether the Israeli incursion was in response to the bombing.
Two boys, ages 2 and 13, were killed in the Gaza fighting, doctors at the city's Shifa Hospital said. The toddler, Amer Ayad, was killed in his home by a large-caliber bullet to the head, said Moawiya Hassanain, the hospital director.
The Israeli military said that troops came under heavy fire and seven soldiers were wounded.
The peace plan is supported by a rare global consensus that neither of the warring sides wants to rebuff. Also, it comes at a time when US clout in the Middle East is at a high point in the wake of Saddam Hussein's ouster in Iraq.
"For the first time in a very long time, Israel and the international community have a partner to go back to the table with," UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said after meeting Abbas. "We have, hopefully, a peace process going."
The two sides started the process at odds. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office issued a statement saying he had received the document "for the purpose of formulating comments on the wording."
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, in contrast, called for "implementing the road map immediately."