In the first Israeli air strike against Palestinian resistance fighters since they began observing a de facto truce in February, a Hamas member was wounded when an Israeli fighter plane attacked a group of Palestinians in southern Gaza Strip on Wednesday.

Palestinian medical sources named the victim of the attack as Ahmad Shahwan, a 24-year-old Hamas member from Khan Yunis.

Shahwan lost both his legs and an arm when Israeli fighter planes attacked, according to medics and witnesses.

The Israeli occupation army said about 20 mortar shells and two al-Qassam rockets were fired by Hamas fighters at Jewish colonies in Gaza.

Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank are illegal under international law.

Hamas charge

Hamas said the mortar shells were fired in retaliation against the killing of one of its members in Rafah earlier on Wednesday.

The slain man was on a patrol when a grenade or small explosive device was detonated by Israeli occupation soldiers, Hamas said.

Ahmed Shahwan was critically 
injured in the Israeli air attack

The Israeli army said its forces could not have been behind the Rafah killing because they did not fire explosive devices during a brief exchange with Palestinian fighters.

The Israeli army said, though, that soldiers had come under attack from automatic gunfire and anti-tank rockets and had responded.

At nightfall on Wednesday, three members of the Palestinian security services were wounded in violent clashes with Hamas activists in the Gaza Strip.

The security officers were attempting to stop the men from firing mortars at a Jewish settlement in retaliation against Wednesday's Israeli military operations.

Officer shot

One Palestinian security officer was shot and the other two were wounded by stone-throwing Hamas supporters. None of the three was thought to have been seriously injured.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri denied the group's members were involved in the incident, saying the cell concerned consisted of members of another, small Palestinian faction.

"These attacks represent a dangerous Israeli escalation against the Palestinian people"

Sami Abu Zuhri,
Hamas spokesman

But the Palestinian Interior Ministry charged that Hamas activists used civilians as shields, and eight officers were hurt by rocks.

 

"This cannot be accepted and this serious violation will not pass [unanswered]," a ministry statement said.

 

Hamas denied opening fire at the police.

 

The group also issued a statement warning Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that "the security you are enjoying these days will not last long if aggression continues against our people".


Dangerous escalation

 

Speaking to Aljazeera on Wednesday, Abu Zuhri condemned the Israeli military operations.

 

"These attacks represent a dangerous Israeli escalation against the Palestinian people," he said.

 

More than 20 mortar shells hit a
Jewish colony on Wednesday

Asked about whether Hamas would retaliate, Abu Zuhri said: "We confirm that our Palestinian people will not stand silent in front of these crimes.

 

"Palestinians and resistance factions will defend themselves in front of these Zionist crimes."

 

Accusing Israel of acts of grave provocation, he demanded that the international community should put pressure on Israel to halt its crimes.

 

"If any regional or international side are concerned about the continuity of the calm, they should intervene now, not to keep us silent and ask us not to defend ourselves, but to impose pressure on the Israelis to halt its crimes and aggression against our people," Abu Zuhri said.