Reuters - An Israeli soldier was killed by a bomb on the border with the Gaza Strip on Tuesday and troops then killed a Palestinian, in violence that strained a ceasefire and left people in Gaza fearing further Israeli attacks.
Ten days after Israel halted a devastating, three-week air and ground offensive that killed 1,300 people in the enclave, neither the ruling Hamas Islamist movement nor its smaller allies claimed responsibility for the attack on the patrol.
But on the day that U.S. President Barack Obama's new envoy arrived in the Middle East bearing a message that the "moment is ripe" for peace talks, Israeli leaders facing an election in two weeks promised voters they would hit back hard.
They won backing from Hillary Clinton, Obama's new secretary of state, who said Israel had a right to defend itself against rockets that Hamas has fired from Gaza over recent years.
"I don't care who fired," said Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is leading the ruling party in the campaign for the Feb. 10 ballot. "Hamas controls Gaza and is responsible for everything that happens. Whenever they fire at me from Gaza, set off a bomb or launch a missile or smuggle (weapons), Israel will respond."
Some hours later, a senior militant from the Hamas-allied Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) was wounded, along with a bystander, in an Israeli air strike, militants and medics said. The missile targeted the man as he was riding a motorcycle.
Residents near Deir al-Balah, in the central Gaza Strip close to where the soldier was killed, said that toward evening tanks and armoured bulldozers were manoeuvring around orchards and wells, causing damage in a familiar punitive tactic.
Although not claiming responsibility, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri praised the bomb attack on the troops as "a natural response to the crimes of the occupier". Two Palestinians were killed last week in incidents blamed on Israeli fire.
The early morning skirmishing was the bloodiest since the 22-day Israeli offensive ended in ceasefire declarations.
The Israeli military said a bomb was detonated against its forces on the Israeli side of the border fence near the Kissufim crossing, killing one soldier and wounding another three.
Israeli fire shortly afterwards in the same area killed a Palestinian who medics said was a 27-year-old farmer.
Palestinians living near Kissufim crossing told Reuters they saw at least two gunmen move up towards the border fence in the morning mist. They later heard explosions and gunfire.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said: "Any group that harms us will be dealt a heavy blow."
Israel said that in response to the attack it shut down the crossing points through which flow the humanitarian aid and other supplies on which the 1.5 million people of Gaza depend. Aid agencies have been urging Israel to ease restrictions on trade to help rebuild thousands of homes destroyed in bombing.
Defence official Peter Lerner said: "This is another example of terrorist activities against the crossings, the same crossings that serve the Palestinian people for ... aid."
Militants have previously directly attacked the transit crossings while demanding an end to Israel's blockade on Gaza.
Ten Israeli soldiers were killed during the offensive that began a month ago on Dec. 27. Three Israeli civilians also died.
Hamas and Israel declared separate ceasefires and both sides are negotiating through Egyptian mediators on a longer-term truce. Hamas wants an easing of Israel's blockade. Israel wants guarantees Hamas cannot renew rocket fire on its towns.
In an interview broadcast on Al Arabiya, Obama said Israel and the Palestinians should resume peace negotiations.
His envoy George Mitchell arrived in Egypt on Tuesday and is due in Jerusalem on Wednesday for talks with Israeli leaders.
Obama's predecessor George W. Bush pushed hard in his final year in power but negotiators failed to achieve his goal of a deal on establishing a Palestinian state by the time he left office.
Obama said: "The moment is ripe for both sides to realise that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that instead, it's time to return to the negotiating table."
Clinton, in her first news conference at the State Department, warned Hamas: "We support Israel's right to self-defence. The rocket barrages ... cannot go unanswered."
Obama has promised the Muslim world a fresh approach but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking to world Jewish leaders in Jerusalem on Monday, said the new U.S. president had also assured him that Washington remained a friend to Israel.
Olmert, who quit over a corruption scandal, will step down finally once a new government is formed following the election.
As well as uncertainty over who will be governing Israel -- the right-wing opposition chief Benjamin Netanyahu is tipped by polls -- Mitchell also faces a divided Palestinian leadership.
Egypt said on Tuesday that it proposed a meeting on Feb. 22 to try to end a schism between Hamas, which won a parliamentary election in 2006, and Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas, whose power has been restricted to the Israeli-occupied West Bank since Hamas seized control of Gaza 20 months ago.