Palestinian militants carried out a complex, daring attack at a vital Gaza-Israel checkpoint, killing six Israelis, defying statements against violence by newly elected leader Mahmoud Abbas and a hint by a Hamas leader that the Islamic group might stop attacks.
Three Palestinians were killed in the attack late Thursday, by far the largest assault since Abbas handily won an election Jan. 9 to replace Yasser Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority.
It also came just hours after a West Bank Hamas leader said the Islamic group might consider an end to attacks against Israel. Hamas was one of three militant groups claiming responsibility for the crossing attack, dubbing it "Shaking Castles" in a statement.
The attack took place just before 11pm at the Karni crossing, where all the farm produce and other goods enter and leave the Gaza Strip.
The militants detonated a large bomb at a door in a security wall between the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the crossing, creating a hole, the military said. The bomb weighed as much as 100kg, Army Radio reported.
Three gunmen charged through the hole and opened fire on Israelis before they were shot and killed themselves, the army said. The Palestinians fired a mortar shell at the crossing during the evacuation of the wounded, the army said.
Palestinian officials were not immediately available for comment. Abbas has been trying to persuade militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad to agree to a ceasefire, but so far with no success. Palestinian officials said efforts would continue at a meeting in Cairo later this month.
Israel demanded Palestinian action to stop such attacks, but a massive Israeli military reaction that often comes after such attacks did not come immediately.
"It's important to act not according to the blood that boils but according to the head," Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni told Army Radio. "But if the Palestinian Authority will not act against terror, we will continue operating."
Israel intends to pull out of Gaza in the summer. Militant groups have been stepping up their attacks in recent months in an attempt to show that they are forcing the Israelis out.
A month ago, soldiers discovered a tunnel militants were digging toward the Karni checkpoint in an attempt to blow it up.
A statement to reporters from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, affiliated with Abbas' Fatah faction, said two fighters were killed "in a martyrdom operation." Later militants said a third gunman was killed while trying to ambush rescue workers.
A spokesman for another group, the Popular Resistance Committees, said militants filmed the attack.
On Thursday, the top Hamas official in the West Bank, Sheik Hassan Yousef, told reporters that the Islamic group, responsible for dozens of bloody suicide bombings, is considering stopping violence against Israelis, recognizing that Palestinians are weary after four years of conflict.
"We read the regional and the international reality and the changes that have taken place based on this reality, and we take positions according to these changes," Yousef said.
Because of the violence and Israeli restrictions aimed at stopping attackers, the Palestinian economy has been shattered, and many people have been reduced to poverty. Peace talks that stalled before the violence erupted in 2000 have not been resumed.