TEL AVIV // Hamas, the Islamic group that rules the Gaza Strip, yesterday threatened to take vengeance after an Israeli air strike killed three militants in its armed wing.
The warning came after Israeli planes fired a missile on a car in which the three men were travelling near the southern town of Khan Younis in the early hours of yesterday morning.
The Israeli army defended the attack. A spokesman said it had been planned jointly with Israel's Shin Bet internal security service and was aimed at a "Hamas terrorist squad planning to kidnap Israelis over the upcoming Jewish holiday of Passover" that begins on April 18.
The spokesman added that the alleged plot was to be carried out either within Israeli territory or in the Sinai Peninsula of neighbouring Egypt, a popular destination for Israelis during the festival.
More than a dozen Palestinians have been killed in the seaside enclave since violence flared between Israel and Hamas last month, following a period of calm between the two sides. Gaza militants fired rockets and mortars at southern Israeli cities, and Israel retaliated with air attacks in Gaza. A week ago, Hamas announced that it would abide by a ceasefire with Israel if Israel halted attacks against it.
Israel, concerned about the prospect of an escalation of rocket fire from Gaza, last week deployed the "Iron Dome" rocket shield outside the Gaza Strip in what its military described as an "acceleration" of the system's field evaluations.
While Israel and Hamas have indicated a reluctance to escalate their conflict to the levels reached two years ago, when a massive Israeli assault against the group resulted in the killing of some 1,400 Palestinians, there were signs that violence may increase in coming weeks.
Yesterday, the armed wing of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine announced it would no longer abide by the ceasefire.
The statement was largely symbolic because the group is small and seldom carries out attacks against Israel.
Hamas yesterday denied the Israeli allegation that the men were planning an assault during Passover. In a statement, the group said that the three men killed were members of its armed wing, Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and said they included Ismail Lubbad, a former bodyguard for Abdelaziz Rantissi, the Hamas leader who was assassinated by Israel in 2004 in an air strike in Gaza City, the Agence France-Presse reported.
The other two men were identified by Hamas as Ismail Lubbad's brother Abdullah and Muhammad al Dayah. In the statement, the group called the strike a "serious escalation" and warned that Israel will "bear all the consequences".
Abu Obeida, a spokesman for Hamas's armed wing, was later quoted by AFP as saying: "If the enemy wants to play with fire, it will get burned with fire."
Israel considers Hamas a terrorist organisation and has blockaded the Gaza strip to put pressure on the group to free Sgt Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier kidnapped by militants in 2006.
Ongoing talks on a possible prisoner exchange have been deadlocked for months, and the Israeli government is under increasing public pressure to act more aggressively to secure the release of Sgt Shalit.
Israel has faced a barrage of criticism from abroad over the blockade. Activists have protested against the policy, and have launched flotillas of boats bound for Gaza aimed at breaking the blockade.
Israel fears such actions will draw more international condemnation of its approach to Gaza.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, this week called on Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, to help prevent an international flotilla of vessels that is expected to make its way to Gaza in May.
Mr Netanyahu said the plan was being implemented by activists whom he denounced as extremist Islamists seeking to fuel tensions.
Media reports have said that the flotilla will be made up of some 15 boats, with activists from 25 countries planning to set sail for Gaza next month to mark the first anniversary of the Israeli commando raid on a Gaza-bound aid convoy that left nine Turkish activists dead.