JERUSALEM — President Obama's special Middle East envoy said Wednesday that strengthening a cease-fire in Gaza is of "critical importance" hours after Israeli warplanes pounded smuggling tunnels in retaliation for the killing of an Israeli soldier in a roadside bomb attack.
The flare-up of violence was the worst since separate cease-fires declared by Israel and Hamas took effect Jan. 18, ending a three-week Israeli offensive against the militant Islamic group.
After meeting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, American envoy George Mitchell said that "of critical importance is consolidating the cease-fire, including a cessation of hostilities, an end to smuggling and the reopening of the crossings." Mitchell was referring to arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip and to border crossings to the territory that have been kept virtually closed by Israel and Egypt since Hamas seized control in Gaza in 2007.
Mitchell is to have talks today with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Further discussions are scheduled in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, France and Britain. Egypt is talking separately with Israel and Hamas about turning the cease-fire into an extended truce.
Hamas demands that as part of the truce, border crossings be reopened to regular supplies. But Israel says that depends on the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier seized by Hamas in a cross-border raid more than two years ago. Hamas says it will release the soldier only as part of a prisoner exchange.
Overnight, Israeli warplanes attacked three smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, the army said. Israel says the tunnels, used to smuggle needed supplies to blockaded Gaza, also are a conduit for weapons.
The airstrikes came after Tuesday's bombing of an Israeli army vehicle patrolling on the Israeli side of the border with Gaza. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said it was the work of a splinter group that was not part of Hamas. He said Israel considered Hamas responsible for hostilities from Gaza.