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JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was rushing back to Israel on Monday following a sudden, rare burst of fighting the previous night that left in doubt efforts to bring to an end months of relentless violence between Israel and Hamas.
The Israeli military said an officer was killed and another was moderately wounded during an operation in the southeast Gaza Strip, involving an exchange of gunfire. It did not disclose other details surrounding the incident.
The Palestinians said seven people, among them at least five militants, were killed in the conflagration.
Netanyahu's office said he cut short a visit to Paris because of the flare-up and he was set to arrive back in Israel on Monday morning.
The unexpected spasm of violence came days after both Israel and Hamas had begun taking steps to ratchet down months of border fighting, that has seen thousands of protesters descend on the perimeter fence between Gaza and Israel, with many throwing stones, burning tires and hurling grenades at Israeli troops.
About 170 demonstrators, many unarmed, have been killed by Israeli fire in the months of confrontations, which appeared to be reaching a turning point with the steps toward an unofficial cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Last week, Israel allowed Qatar to deliver $15 million in aid to Gaza's cash-strapped Hamas rulers. Hamas responded by lowering the intensity of the border protest last Friday.
While the fighting eased early on Monday, and the sides appeared to show restraint, the fate of the progress toward a truce remained uncertain.
It was not clear what exactly touched off Sunday's fighting.
Hamas' armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, said Israeli undercover forces in a civilian vehicle infiltrated 3 kilometers (about 2 miles), into Gaza on Sunday and fatally shot Nour el-Deen Baraka, its local commander in Khan Younis town. It said militants discovered the car and chased it down, prompting Israeli airstrikes that killed "a number of people." The Israeli military said militants launched 17 rockets from Gaza toward Israeli communities, where school was cancelled in response.
Netanyahu was in Paris, where he had joined dozens of world leaders in commemorating the end World War I.
On Sunday, he defended his decision to allow through the Qatari cash to Gaza as a way to avert an "unnecessary war," maintain quiet for residents of southern Israel and prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in the impoverished Gaza Strip.
Hamas has been leading the protests since March 30 in a bid to ease a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade that was imposed in 2007 in order to weaken the militant group. The blockade has led to over 50 percent unemployment and chronic power outages, and prevents most Gazans from being able to leave the tiny territory.
Israel says it is defending its border against militant infiltrations, but its army has come under international criticism because of the large number of unarmed protesters who have been shot.