Two Palestinians Killed in Gaza Firing

Two suspected Palestinian militants died and an Israeli soldier was wounded late Saturday in an exchange of gunfire near the border of the Gaza Strip with Israel, the Israeli army announced.

Soldiers spotted the two Palestinians near the security barrier separating Israel from Hamas-controlled Gaza and opened fire, killing them after a gun battle lasting some 20 minutes, an army spokesman said.

"During searches at the scene, shots were fired at the force, apparently resulting in the injury of one of the soldiers," an army statement said. Israeli soldiers fired back. There were no further casualties on their side.

The injured soldier was evacuated by helicopter.

Palestinian witnesses told AFP they saw armed men exchange fire with Israeli soldiers before two Israeli tanks and two armored troop carriers entered about 100 meters (yards) into the Palestinian zone.

Earlier Saturday, a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit southern Israel without causing casualties or damage, an Israeli military spokesman said.

Gaza-based Palestinian militants have fired some 200 rockets and mortars into Israel this year. Eight attacks have been recorded in the past week.

Clashes along the barrier dividing Israel and the Gaza Strip have increased in past weeks, and the army statement said there had been about 100 "terror-related incidents" there since the beginning of the year.

The army blamed Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, and warned it will "continue to respond harshly to any attempt to use terror against the state of Israel."

On December 2, two fighters from Islamic Jihad were killed as they approached the border.

Israel's military commander Gaby Ashkenazi has said the security situation along the border remains fragile, with the army saying armed Palestinian groups are equipped with anti-tank rockets.

On Friday, two Palestinian teenagers were killed in a blast in Gaza City thought to be caused by an unexploded Israeli tank shell, medical and security sources said.

They said the shell was most likely left over from Israel's 22-day war against Gaza's Islamist rulers, dubbed Operation Cast Lead, which began at the end of December 2008 and cost the lives of 1,400 Palestinians, most of them civilians, and 13 Israelis, 10 of them soldiers.

The latest violence comes as weeks of efforts by Washington to save the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians appear to have failed.

The United States was unable to persuade Israel to renew a freeze on building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

U.S. President Barack Obama presided over the re-launch of direct talks in Washington in September, only to see them stall within weeks when a settlement moratorium expired and the Palestinians refused to return to the table.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday sought a clean start in the peace talks by urging both sides to tackle "without delay" the core issues of their decades-old conflict.

Clinton urged the two sides to get to the heart of the issues dividing them even if they cannot agree to meet face-to-face.