KHAN YUNIS, Gaza Strip – In one of the boldest and deadliest raids against Israeli forces, two Palestinian militants climbed into an isolated military outpost in the southern Gaza Strip, killing three soldiers and wounding seven before they were shot dead Saturday.
In a second lethal attack, two Israeli men and one Israeli woman were killed and two children were wounded when their car was ambushed Saturday night by gunmen on a road just north of Jerusalem, near the West Bank settlement of Modiin, the Israeli army said.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, made up of militants linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility.
The deaths of six Israelis was one of the highest single-day tolls in the 11 months of Mideast fighting, and prompted Israel to send tanks, armored personnel carriers and bulldozers into Palestinian areas in the Gaza Strip late Saturday and early Sunday morning.
"Whether attacking Israeli soldiers in Gaza or attacking Israeli civilians on roads near Jerusalem, Yasser Arafat is escalating his war of terrorism against the state of Israel," said Israeli government spokesman Dore Gold.
The Israeli forces surrounded Rafah and cut off all roads leading in and out of the Palestinian town in southern Gaza, on the border with Egypt, residents said.
Rafah is only a few miles from the site of the Palestinian raid on the Israeli military outpost early Saturday.
The Israelis took over several small Palestinian security outposts, and bulldozers tore down two larger security buildings, according to residents and Majid al-Ajha, the governor of Rafah.
The Israeli tanks and armored vehicles came under heavy Palestinian gunfire, and shot back with shells and machine guns, they added. At least two Palestinians were wounded, hospital doctors said.
At mosques in Rafah, calls went out over the loudspeakers urging residents to join a "holy war" against the Israeli forces.
"The people of Rafah are defending the city in order to teach the Israelis a lesson," said al-Ajha.
The Israeli military did not immediately give any details of the operation.
In previous incursions into Palestinian territory, the Israelis have moved in briefly to destroy Palestinian security offices, and then withdrawn after only a few hours.
In Gaza City, at least a half dozen Israeli helicopters hovered near Arafat's headquarters. The Palestinian leader was away, traveling in Asia. Also, two Israeli tanks moved to the eastern outskirts of the city, Palestinian security sources said.
Palestinian militants have targeted Israeli troops and Jewish settlers in Gaza throughout the current conflict. However, in most cases, the militants have fired from a distance, or attempted roadside ambushes.
Saturday's direct assault on the fortified Israeli position at 3 a.m., claimed by the radical Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, appeared to catch the soldiers off-guard.
The two attackers climbed over separate embankments in the dark, breaking into the isolated Marganit military base, and began shooting and throwing grenades at soldiers, the Israeli army said.
Soldiers shot back, killing one Palestinian at the base. The second man managed to flee, but was pursued and shot dead about four hours later while attempting to take cover at a greenhouse in a nearby Jewish settlement, the army added.
"It was a face-to-face battle and a very complicated battle," Israeli Maj. Gen. Doron Almog said of the shootout at the base.
After the attack, Israeli helicopters were in the air over southern Gaza. A coastal road used by Palestinians was blockaded, and additional military vehicles arrived in the area from Israel proper.
The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine said the assault was in retaliation for Israeli attacks on Palestinians. The group's leader, Nayef Hawatmeh, has been based in Damascus, Syria, for years and the movement had not previously played a major role in the current Mideast fighting.
In a videotape made before the attack, the two Palestinian militants were shown with Kalashnikov rifles, seated in front of a Palestinian flag.
"I donate myself to God and our people," said Hisham Abu Jamus, 24. Abu Jamus and the other assailant, Amin Abu Hatab, 26, previously worked for the Palestinian security forces, but quit after the Palestinian uprising began last September, Palestinian security sources said.
Abu Hatab skipped his brother's wedding on Friday to prepare for the attack, according to his mother Amina Abu Hatab.
Abu Hatab was injured in a clash with Israelis when he was a teen-ager and long wanted to be a "martyr," his mother said.
The Israeli dead included a major, Gil Oz, 30, the army said.
The Israeli troops in Gaza protect about 6,000 Jewish settlers who live in fortified enclaves in Gaza, surrounded by more than 1 million Palestinians.
The Palestinians want Gaza for a future Palestinian state, and have demanded that the Israeli troops and settlers leave the territory.
The three soldiers killed Saturday marked the second highest toll for the Israeli military since the violence began. Seven soldiers and an Israeli civilian were killed Feb. 14, when a Palestinian bus driver plowed into a crowd waiting at a bus stop near Tel Aviv.