A bomb planted by Palestinian militants along the Gaza Strip border killed an Israeli soldier Tuesday morning, leading to Israeli retaliatory actions that killed two Palestinians in the most serious clash between the sides since the end last week of Israel's offensive against Gaza militants, dpa reported.
Israel also closed the crossing points into the Gaza Strip "until further notice," an Israeli official said.
The latest violence came as Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said he expected the Islamic Hamas movement, which administers the Gaza Strip, and Israel to agree next week on a long-term truce.
It was unclear whether the bombing and subsequent airstrikes would lead to a new cycle of violence, ending chances of the sides agreeing to a lasting ceasefire to replace the one which ended on December 19. When that one expired, Hamas began regular rocket barrages on southern Israel, leading to the massive Israeli Operation Cast Lead, which opened on December 27.
Aboul Gheit told reporters in Cairo that "Egyptian efforts towards a truce indicate that we can reach a lasting ceasefire in the first week of February."
Aboul Gheit went on to say that Egypt would then strive for reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, the feuding Palestinian political factions.
"If we can reach agreements during the last week of February, this will pave the way for the reconstruction of Gaza," he said, after meeting with EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana and Egyptian President Hosny Mubarak in Cairo.
"Then the peace process can be put back on track in cooperation with the US envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell," he continued.
Arab media have reported that Hamas is demanding that any truce will see the crossing points into the Gaza Strip opened continuously. Israel however, is only willing to open them partially, and conditions this on the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier snatched in a cross-border raid from Gaza on June 25, 2006.
Hamas further wants its operatives to be stationed at the Rafah border crossing, along with European observers and officials from the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA).
The crossing has been closed since Hamas seized control of security installations in the Gaza Strip in June 2007. Egypt has previously said that the crossing will only be opened with PA officials and EU observers, as laid down in a November 2005 US- brokered agreement, which Hamas did not recognize.
Israel also wants, as part of the truce, that Hamas end its arms smuggling into the strip, a condition the Islamist movement has rejected.
An Israeli military spokesman in Tel Aviv said the blast occurred as the soldiers were patrolling the Israeli side of the border fence. In addition to the non-commissioned officer killed, one officer was seriously wounded and two soldiers received light injuries.
Israel almost immediately shelled Palestinian structures near the Kissufum crossing, east of Gaza city, where the blast took place, killing a Palestinian farmer.
An Israeli airstrike in the mid-afternoon killed a Hamas militant riding a motorcycle, Palestinians said.
No Palestinian militant group claimed responsibility for the blast, which came nine days after Israel, and then the Palestinian militias, instituted separate ceasefires to bring the Gaza Strip fighting to an end.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Israel had to respond to the attack.
"If someone fires or places a charge or smuggles arms, Israel must retaliate," she said. "If we are attacked we must strike back. The way we conduct ourselves after the operation is just as important," she said.