An Israeli soldier was killed on the edge of the Gaza Strip Thursday in a blast claimed by militants, as efforts gathered pace to broker a truce after a week of bloodletting in the Hamas-run territory.
"An Israeli soldier was killed and three others wounded, including one seriously, by an explosion of a device that was set off in the path of a patrol near the security fence in the central Gaza Strip," an army spokesman said.
The radical Palestinian group Islamic Jihad claimed it had blown up a jeep near the Kissufim crossing in central Gaza.
The violence erupted as international efforts were underway in neighboring Egypt with the aim of brokering a truce in and around Gaza after an escalation of violence that has killed some 130 people in eight days.
Delegations from Hamas and Islamic Jihad crossed the Rafah border into Egypt for talks with officials on the situation in Gaza and the possibility of a ceasefire with Israel, officials from the two movements told AFP.
At the same time, U.S. Middle East envoy David Welch was in Cairo on for talks with Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit on how to bring about a ceasefire, the foreign ministry said.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who ended a two-day visit to the region on Wednesday with a promise from Israelis and Palestinians to resume talking, had said Welch was "to look at the entire situation in Gaza," where Hamas seized power nearly nine months ago.
Israel considers Hamas a terror outfit and refuses to have direct contacts, but is widely believed to be negotiating a prisoner exchange with the group via Egypt and other third parties.
The last time Israel and Hamas agreed to a mediated truce was in November 2006, after a five-month Israeli offensive in Gaza that followed the seizure of an Israeli soldier by militants.
The two sides largely abided by the ceasefire until last April, two months before the Hamas takeover, when the truce dissolved into deadly Israeli raids inside Gaza and rocket strikes against the Jewish state.
Abbas had suspended peace talks on Sunday to protest Israeli strikes that have killed at least 127 Palestinians inside Gaza since February 27. Three Israeli soldiers and one civilian have also died in the same time frame.
Israel and the Palestinians revived peace talks to much fanfare at a U.S. conference in November, but the negotiations have stalled since then amid deep discord over the core issues of the decades-old conflict.
And since late November, at least 330 people have been killed in violence, most of them Gaza militants, according to an AFP tally.
The isolated enclave, which is sandwiched between Israel and Egypt and the Mediterranean and is one of the most densely populated places on earth, has been under a crippling Israeli blockade imposed in a bid to halt rocket fire.
On Thursday, British humanitarian agencies warned that the situation in Gaza was the worst in 40 years, urging the European Union to hold talks with Hamas and calling for an end to the blockade.