Israeli troops in armored vehicles charged into an industrial zone on the southern outskirts of Gaza City early Wednesday and fought gunbattles that killed eight Palestinians, including militants and civilians, the two sides said.
The fighting was some of the most intense in recent weeks and came as visiting American diplomats met the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, to try to breathe life into the moribund Middle East peace plan.
"This crime shows bad intentions from the Israelis while the American envoy is here, to take such aggression against the Palestinian people," Qureia said in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Israeli troops raid Palestinians cities and towns almost daily in search of militants, but such operations are relatively rare in Gaza City, the largest Palestinian city.
Israel said it had sent its forces into the industrial zone because Palestinian factions had been firing mortars and shooting from the area at the isolated Jewish settlement of Netzarim, a little over a mile away.
Palestinians have fired more than 100 mortar shells at Netzarim in the past two months, the Israeli Army said. The shells, which are highly inaccurate, have caused damage but few casualties.
Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers based at Netzarim rumbled into Gaza City about 4:30 a.m., according to Palestinian security forces in the area.
Palestinian gunmen, some masked, took to the streets, and sustained gunbattles broke out. The Palestinians also fired rocket-propelled grenades and antitank missiles, Israel's military said, adding that none of its soldiers had been hurt.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a faction that has carried out many suicide bombings and other attacks against Israel, said four of its men were killed.
The Israeli military confirmed that its troops had hit a number of armed Palestinians.
"Our goal is to restrict the movement of these terrorists and target the ones who threaten our security," an Israeli commander, identified as a lieutenant colonel named Udi, told Israel radio. "I can't refer to specific numbers today. However, I can confirm we killed terrorists."
At least five of the dead were armed men, including the four from Palestinian Islamic Jihad and one from Hamas, and three were believed to be bystanders, hospital officials said. Israel's military said no soldiers were hurt and said all the Palestinian dead were armed.
Gaza City is a stronghold for the most extreme factions, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas. But Israeli military officers have said the sprawling city is a difficult place for its soldiers to operate in, and the army has been cautious about staging incursions.
Palestinians said the timing of the raid could undermine the latest diplomatic effort.
Senior Egyptian officials met Palestinian leaders on Tuesday, and two American envoys, John Wolf and David Satterfield, visited Qureia on Wednesday.
Qureia said he had called on the Americans to help arrange a meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Qureia has been in office nearly four months, but the two prime ministers have yet to meet.
One sign of progress is the return of uniformed Palestinian police officers to West Bank cities. They have been almost invisible since Israel began large-scale incursions almost two years ago. Before Wednesday, Israeli forces generally treated any Palestinian carrying a weapon, and any uniformed officer, as a combatant. Palestinian security officers often took part in attacks on Israelis, the Israeli army says.
Palestinian security chiefs said their officers in West Bank cities now had permission from Israel to wear uniforms and carry registered sidearms. The move followed several months of negotiations that were sealed in a meeting on Tuesday between top security officers from both sides.
_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
PRISONER SWAP: Israeli prison guards verify the identity of Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, the former spiritual leader of Hezbollah who is one of the most prominent of the 436 prisoners Israel is trading for kidnapped businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers. A plane carrying 36 non-Palestinian prisoners took off from Jerusalem early today, bound for Germany; the trade was expected to be completed later in the day.