Israeli force clashes with militants in Gaza

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GAZA, Sep 15 (Reuters) A small Israeli ground force pushed into the northern Gaza Strip today, clashing with militants and bulldozing areas of farmland, the army and residents said.

Local medics said a 17-year-old Palestinian male was in serious condition after being shot in the stomach in northern Gaza. The army said it had no reports of injuries.

An army spokesman said Israeli forces conducted ''routine activity'' against what it called terror threats in the north of the coastal enclave, and said troops arrested nine Palestinians.

Militants in northern Gaza fired a rocket propelled grenade at the Israelis and exchanged fire with soldiers, he said.

Local residents said a small group of armoured vehicles bulldozed farm land in northern Gaza. A small force also entered southern Gaza, according to residents, but the army said there was no activity in the area.

Tensions between the Jewish state and Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in June, have increased sharply after a makeshift rocket fired into Israel by militants wounded at least 35 Israeli army conscripts this week.

The army frequently carries out operations in border areas to try to curb rocket attacks by militants in Gaza. Israel has so far opted against a major offensive in the territory but this week's rocket attack rekindled calls for tougher reprisals.

Separately, the Israeli army arrested 12 protesters at a rally near the West Bank city of Nablus after they hurled rocks at soldiers and tried to force their way through a checkpoint, an army spokesman said.

Two of the protesters were Palestinian and the rest were Israelis and foreigners. One protester was lightly injured and taken to hospital, the spokesman said, adding that about 40 people attended the rally.

An Israeli newspaper website said the protesters were demonstrating against a planned road block in the area.

REUTERS GL PM2145

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