GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Gaza militants with explosives-laden horses approached the Israeli border early Monday, igniting a battle that left four gunmen dead, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.
The incident marked a serious flare-up along the border, which has remained tense but relatively quiet since a three-week military offensive in January.
The clash came a day before President Obama's envoy, George Mitchell, was expected in Israel for talks. The visit follows Obama's call in his Cairo speech last week for a halt to construction in Israeli settlements and endorsement of the creation of a Palestinian state.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not accepted either point. He has a major speech set for next Sunday to spell out his policy.
During a stop Monday in Norway, Mitchell said Obama wants a quick resumption of peace talks. "He has directed me to exert all effort to try to create a circumstance in which the parties can begin immediate discussion," Mitchell said.
Commenting on the Gaza clash, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the army prevented a "severe attack" and said the militants might have planned to capture an Israeli soldier.
The Israeli military said the Palestinian fighters approached the border fence between Israel and the Hamas-controlled territory with a number of trucks carrying a total of five horses. The militants were planting bombs along the fence when they were spotted and fired on by Israeli infantrymen. The Israelis also employed tanks and helicopter gunships, the military said.
The carcass of one horse was visible at the scene, along with the charred remains of three trucks.
Gaza is enclosed by a security fence. The attack occurred near Nahal Oz, a crossing used to ship fuel into Gaza and a target of past attacks.
Palestinian militants have never staged attacks on horseback, though other animals have been used as weapons. In 2001, a booby-trapped donkey cart exploded near troops in Gaza, and in 2003 Palestinian militants sent an explosives-laden donkey toward troops near the West Bank town of Bethlehem. The donkeys were the only fatalities in both incidents.
Ismail Haniyeh, who heads Gaza's Hamas government, praised the militants as "martyrs" and said the violence confirmed Israel's "aggressive intentions" toward the Palestinians.
According to a Hamas Web site, the militants behind Monday's operation belonged to an unknown group calling itself the Soldiers of the Companions of God.
Sporadic violence has continued along the border since Israel ended its devastating three-week offensive against Hamas in January.
Most of those incidents, including attacks against Israeli patrols and bombs planted along the fence, have been initiated by small militant groups and not by Hamas, the Islamic organization that has controlled Gaza for two years.
The Israeli offensive killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, including more than 900 civilians, according to Palestinian officials and human rights groups. It also destroyed thousands of homes and heavily damaged Gaza's infrastructure.
Israel says the death toll was lower and that most of the dead were armed militants.
Also Monday, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said key donors are considering streaming $120 million in emergency funding to the West Bank and Gaza. The donors include Norway, the U.S., the European Union, Saudi Arabia, Japan, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Fayyad spoke after a meeting of representatives of the donors in Norway. He said governments would have to approve the new aid. The Palestinian Authority needs around $120 million dollars in aid to balance its monthly budget.
Last week the IMF warned of a Palestinian cash crisis, blaming delinquent Arab donors.