GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – An Israeli airstrike killed four Palestinian militants as they fired mortars from the Gaza Strip on Sunday, Palestinian officials said, just hours after another group of militants struck Israel in a separate rocket attack.
The violence was the latest in a surge of clashes that have rocked a 5-month-old truce between Israel and Gaza's militant Hamas rulers. Both sides say they would like to preserve the Egyptian-mediated truce, which is due to expire next month, but events over the past two weeks signal the opposite is happening.
The militants killed in the airstrike were from a small Hamas-allied group known as the Popular Resistance Committees. Abu Attaya, a spokesman for the group, said the four were firing mortars at Israel when they were killed.
The Israeli military said the airstrike targeted a rocket squad in northern Gaza.
After the strike, dozens of onlookers converged on the bodies of two of the dead men shouting "God is great." They then carried the bodies, one wrapped in a blanket, to a nearby civilian car.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum threatened retaliation. "Today's crime will not pass without punishment," he said.
At sundown a rocket launched from Gaza hit a house under construction in the battered Israeli border town of Sderot, slightly wounding a resident, police and media reports said.
Palestinians launched two other rockets earlier in the day. No one was hurt, the military said.
According to the Israeli military's count, Palestinians have sent more than 170 rockets and mortars flying at Israel since the violence resumed nearly two weeks ago. Israeli troops have killed 15 militants, and two more died in unclear circumstances. No civilians have been killed on either side.
Israeli leaders signaled they had not given up on the cease-fire. Speaking Sunday ahead of the Israeli Cabinet's weekly meeting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, "We are not eager for battle but we do not fear it."
Israel has dispatched several messages to Hamas, via Egypt, saying it wants to see the truce preserved, Israeli defense officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the efforts were not made public. Hamas officials also confirmed they have been in touch with Egypt.
In Gaza, the prime minister of the Hamas government, Ismail Haniyeh, said continuing the truce "depends on stopping the aggression against our people, opening the border crossings and all the terms of the calm."
Israel has sealed Gaza's border crossings since the latest fighting erupted, barring badly needed goods and fuel from entering the impoverished territory. U.N. food supplies in Gaza have been depleted and the fuel cutoff has led to power shortages.
Olmert is set to meet on Monday with Hamas' rival, moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, for another in a series of talks on peace negotiations.
An Abbas aide said the Palestinian leader would ask Olmert "to avoid further suffering of the people in the Gaza Strip," Nabil Abu Rdeneh said.
Although Abbas no longer controls Gaza, he still claims to be the legitimate leader and representative of the area's 1.4 million people.