GAZA CITYÂ Â (AFP) â€” 8 Palestinians, including a teenage boy and three Hamas fighters, were killed by Israeli fire in the Gaza Strip on Thursday as troops mounted a fresh incursion as part of a four-month offensive.
The violence â€” at a time of increased tensions between rival Palestinian factions â€” came as an armed group linked to president Mahmoud Abbas’ Fateh Party rescued a US student abducted by rival fighters in the West Bank.
Five of those killed in the southern Gaza Strip belonged to the same family â€” bystanders 13-year-old Suheib Iqdah, his 40-year-old father Adel and three fighters from the armed wing of ruling Islamist movement Hamas.
They died after an Israeli aircraft fired a missile into a group of people in Abbassan, near the town of Khan Younis, medical and security sources said.
Another 15 Palestinians were wounded, including people brought in overnight during exchanges of fire with Israeli ground troops who pushed into the territory a short distance across the border from the Jewish state.
One of the wounded later died.
The Israeli military confirmed the air strike and the launch overnight of a ground operation targeting “tunnels and other terror infrastructure” in the Khan Younis area, saying its troops were periodically coming under fire.
“During that operation overnight there were several occasions in which gunmen opened fire on the forces. The forces returned fire and in all identified hitting six gunmen,” a spokesman said.
“Other than that, there was an air force attack on a group of four armed gunmen who were identified approaching the forces and we identified hitting those gunmen,” the spokesman added.
The Izzeddine Qassam Brigades announced that three of its fighters â€” all aged 23 â€” were killed in a direct hit when a “Zionist helicopter” fired a missile as they “confronted an incursion by occupation forces”.
The Israeli military said five makeshift rockets fired by Palestinian fighters in Gaza exploded inside Israel, causing minor damage to farmland.
Limited numbers of Israeli troops looking for “terrorist infrastructure” have also been operating in the northern Gaza Strip for more than a week.
Since June 28, Israel has waged a prolonged offensive in Gaza with the stated goals of retrieving a soldier captured by fighters, including those from the Izzeddine Qassam, and stopping rocket attacks on its territory.
A UN special envoy for human rights, John Dugard, has accused Israel of unleashing “collective punishment” in the territory, declaring last month that some 260 Palestinians had been killed and 800 injured in the operation.
In the West Bank, a Fateh official said the armed group Aqsa Martyrs Brigades had freed a US student seized by other fighters and delivered him to a member of the Abbas-headed Palestine Liberation Organisation.
“Men from the Aqsa Martyrs Brigade released the American student who had been taken hostage in Nablus this evening and he is now safe and sound and in a safe place,” said Fateh official Jamal Tirawi.
“There were exchanges of gunfire with the hostage-takers but the student was rescued and handed over to Ghassan Shaka, a member of the executive committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation,” he added.
On Wednesday, the relatively unknown Ansar Suna movement said it had taken Michael Phillips hostage in Nablus, sending security officials a fax of his passport and student ID card.
A masked man who said he belonged to Ansar Suna in Khan Younis that the abduction was a response “to the war on Islam and Muslims”.
Palestinian tensions have soared recently amid deadlocked efforts to form a national unity government as a means to ending unprecedented financial and political crisis since Hamas formed a government last March.
The Islamists have stubbornly rejected immense pressure from Abbas and the international community to accept a political programme that amounts to recognition of Israel and past Israeli-Palestinian agreements.