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(photo credit: IDF)
Two soldiers were killed and one was kidnapped in an attack on an IDF position near the Kerem Shalom crossing in the southern Gaza Strip on Sunday.
Lt. Hanan Barak, 20, and St.-Sgt. Pavel Slutsker, 20, were killed when gunmen attacked their tank with a rocket and bombs, OC Gaza Big.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi told reporters at Sunday's briefing in nearby Kibbutz Kerem Shalom. The tank driver was seriously wounded and Shalit was captured by the attackers. Other gunmen also attacked a tower and an unmanned armored personnel carrier.
Three other soldiers, responding to the initial attacks, were lightly wounded when a bomb left behind by the terrorists exploded. Helicopter crews evacuated the wounded to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba. Palestinian sources reported that three gunmen were killed in the battle.
Senior Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) sources said that they had given the IDF specific intelligence regarding the attack, including the probable location and possible use of tunnels. Peretz, however, told reporters that the IDF had only received a general warning.
At the Kerem Shalom briefing, Halutz admitted the IDF had been taken by surprise. "The incident in Kerem Shalom caught us unprepared," he said. "This incident is a hundred times worse because this is not the consequence we hope for in such an encounter."
OC Manpower Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern said Shalit walked from the tank under his own power, and was forced across the fence into Gaza by the Palestinian gunmen, who blew a hole in the barrier.
Kochavi said the highly coordinated attack began at approximately 5:30 a.m. when seven or eight gunmen wearing olive green fatigues emerged from a tunnel into an IDF position between Kerem Shalom and the Sufa crossing. The tunnel's exit was 300 meters from the security fence and actually opened up behind a tank, a decoy armored personnel carrier and a fortified guard tower.
Upon exiting the tunnel, the group broke into three smaller units. One attacked the decoy carrier, destroying it. A second group of two gunmen attempted to storm the guard tower, igniting a fierce exchange with the four soldiers manning it. Kochavi said one of the gunmen was killed on the steps leading up to the tower and the other as he attempted to flee.
The third group attacked the tank from behind, throwing grenades and firing a rocket-propelled grenade. Barak and Slutsker were killed and the driver was seriously wounded. At this point, the gunmen captured Shalit and dragged him into Gaza.
Ground troops, backed by tanks and Apache helicopters, moved nearly a kilometer into Gaza when it became apparent that Shalit was missing, IDF officers said. Soldiers uncovered the tunnel's entrance, which was some 500 meters from the security fence. A senior Southern Command officer said this initial incursion was limited to a search of the area.
Halutz said Hamas was involved "from head to foot, literally" in the attack.
"The soldier is alive, and therefore they bear responsibility for his fate," he said. He declined to specify if air strikes against senior Hamas leaders were imminent.
Peretz warned that "anyone who causes harm to the soldier should know that the soldier's blood is on his head and on the head of his commanders."
Hamas' military wing, which renounced a shaky 16-month-old truce on June 9 and openly resumed firing Kassam rockets, confirmed its participation. The Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) and a previously unknown group, the Islamic Army, said they also took part.
"This operation is a natural response to the Israeli crimes of killing women and children and the assassination of two leaders," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.
"Our fighters infiltrated the Israeli military location near so-called Kerem Shalom," said PRC spokesman Abu Mujahid. "They succeeded in blowing up several Israeli vehicles and clashed with Israeli soldiers. The battle is still going on. The number of fighters is bigger than ever. We have some martyrs who fell during the battle."
"It was a very complicated and well-studied operation. The details are going to shock the Zionists. There are many surprises that are going to be announced about the planning and the process and the battle itself," he said.
The Kerem Shalom crossing was closed last week following a general warning of an attack against Israeli crossing points to the southern Gaza Strip.
AP contributed to this report