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3 Killed in Deadliest Clash Between Israel, Hamas Since Truce

Israeli forces killed three Palestinian militants on the Gaza border Tuesday, the military and Israeli media said, in the deadliest clash since a truce between Israel and the Islamic Hamas rulers of Gaza expired over the weekend.

Despite the violence, Israel's Defense Ministry said late Tuesday that it had decided to open three border crossings to allow "minimal" supplies into Gaza, the Palestinians' impoverished seaside strip where shortages of vital goods are common.

The clash and renewed rocket fire from Gaza after a one-day lull dampened hopes that the truce could be renewed quickly.

Israel said three militants were spotted planting explosives in northern Gaza along the border fence. Soldiers crossed a few yards into Gaza and engaged the Palestinians, who threw grenades. The military said soldiers returned fire, hitting the three. Israeli media said they were killed, the first to die since the truce ended.

There was no immediate Palestinian comment. In the past, militant groups have responded to such clashes with rocket barrages.

Before the clash, five rockets and a mortar were fired at Israel on Tuesday. No casualties or damage were reported.

On Monday Hamas ordered a one-day halt to rocket fire, hoping for shipments of food, but Hamas official Taher Nunu said Tuesday it would not be extended. A truce that largely held for five months expired on Friday.

Israel had said it would hold its fire if the rocket attacks stop but has given no guarantees about opening the crossings.

Nevertheless, the Defense Ministry said that for humanitarian reasons, it would permit a "minimal" amount of food, medicines and fuel to be shipped into Gaza through the three main cargo crossings on Wednesday. However, it said that the blockade would remain in effect.

Israel imposed the blockade on Gaza after Hamas, which is violently anti-Israel, seized power last year. Since then it has limited cargo shipments to vital supplies, closing the crossings almost completely in November with the resumption of rocket fire.

It has allowed only small quantities of essential goods in and Tuesday's decision appeared to be in keeping with the policy.

The United Nations and aid groups have appealed to Israel to ease the blockade.

Abu Obeida, a masked spokesman for the armed wing of Hamas, denied Tuesday there was even a one-day halt. "Firing rockets at Israel is not a game," he said.

So far the number of rockets and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes has not approached the pre-truce level, feeding hopes that the cease-fire might resume.

Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu said the Islamic militants would study any new offer, but it must include a halt to Israeli military operations and lifting of the blockade.

Egypt, which mediated the expired truce, is pressing for its renewal. Egyptian Presiden Hosni Mubarak met Tuesday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has little sway in Gaza. On Thursday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will go to Cairo for talks about a truce, at Mubarak's invitation.

Egypt is eager to maintain its influence with the Palestinians, concerned that extremism in Gaza could spill over into Egypt.