JERUSALEM — Israeli forces killed two Palestinian militants Sunday along the Gaza-Israel border, where a sudden surge in violence has weakened an unofficial truce in place since Israel’s bruising 2009 war there.
The Israeli military said it launched an airstrike after spotting two men trying to plant an explosive device along the frontier, where soldiers patrol. The Islamic Jihad militant group said two of its members died in a clash with Israeli ground troops. There was no way to immediately reconcile the two accounts.
The border area has been calm for the most part since Israel invaded Gaza in December 2008 to try to stop years of Palestinian rocket fire on southern Israel, killing more than 1,400 Palestinians — including more than 900 civilians — and destroying large sections of the territory.
But violence flared several weeks ago, and on Saturday, Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers warned they would escalate hostilities against Israel if tensions didn’t subside.
Israel holds Hamas responsible for all attacks coming out of Gaza, though much of the rocket fire has been carried out by more radical splinter groups. But they all share a common rejection of Israel’s right to exist and oppose efforts by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to win a Palestinian state through negotiations with Israel.
Those negotiations ran aground several months ago over Israeli settlement construction. Palestinian leaders, skeptical of ever negotiating a deal with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, say they are pursuing alternatives. Their main fallback strategy is seeking recognition from as many countries as possible of a Palestinian state in territories Israel captured in 1967.
On Sunday, Israeli Cabinet Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer warned that if Israel doesn’t enter into peace talks with the Palestinians, then “the whole world” is likely to recognize a sovereign Palestinian state — a development Israel would not welcome.
“Within a year, we will find ourselves in a situation where the whole world — and I wouldn’t be surprised if even the United States — would support a Palestinian state,” he said.
Ben-Eliezer belongs to the Labor Party, which is more moderate than Netanyahu’s Likud Party.
Over the past two decades, more than 100 countries have recognized an independent Palestinian state, including a string of Latin American countries in the past few weeks.
But major players in the world of Mideast mediation, like the U.S. and the European Union, have not done so, saying a state should emerge from negotiations, not unilateral actions. If Israel were to lose crucial U.S. support for a negotiated accord, that would severely weaken Israel’s ability to influence the terms of Palestinian statehood.
Talks broke down three weeks after they began with the expiration of a 10-month moratorium on new settlement construction in the West Bank.
The Palestinians say the settlements, built on territories Israel captured in 1967, are gobbling up lands they want for a future state. But Israel has refused to curb building.
After failing to break the stalemate, Washington abandoned efforts to restart the direct talks and has begun a new round of mediated talks instead.
The fate of east Jerusalem, home to important Jewish, Muslim and Christian shrines, lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel has cemented its presence there by building Jewish neighborhoods that are home to 200,000 settlers. Some 2,000 other settlers live in the heart of Arab neighborhoods.
A Palestinian who has led protests against the presence of the Jewish settlers in his east Jerusalem neighborhood said Sunday that Israel had ordered him to leave the city for four months by late afternoon.
Adnan Gheith, local leader of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement, said Israel had rejected his appeal of an expulsion order issued earlier this year.
His lawyer, Rami Othman, said he plans to appeal the case to Israel’s Supreme Court before the 5 p.m. deadline expires.
The expulsion order seems to be part of a wider Israeli crackdown on opponents of its policies toward the Palestinians.
But this case is exceptional because the military is invoking an obscure emergency regulation to expel a Jerusalemite from the city. The law dates back to British rule before Israel was established and hasn’t been used for decades.