Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired scores of
rockets into southern Israel on Saturday, wounding at least two Israeli
civilians and triggering retaliatory airstrikes and tank fire against militant
targets in the Hamas-ruled enclave and shattering a month-long lull in
violence, AP reported.
Israeli officials said a 50-year-old woman was severely wounded by rocket fire, while a teenage boy was mildly hurt as he ran for cover. Gaza’s Health Ministry said a 22-year-old Palestinian man was killed by an Israeli airstrike, and 13 other Palestinians were wounded. Israeli police said a house in the coastal city of Ashkelon was damaged.
The outbreak of fighting came as leaders from Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, and the smaller armed faction Islamic Jihad were in Egypt for talks with mediators aimed at restoring a fraying ceasefire. Hamas leaders have hoped the recent calm would pave the way for a deeper, longer-term ceasefire.
Tensions have risen in recent days amid allegations from Hamas that Israel has been delaying implementation of last month’s ceasefire understandings.
The Israeli military accused the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad of instigating this round of violence by shooting and wounding two Israeli soldiers Friday. It said the shooting was not coordinated with Hamas, but blamed the movement for the flare-up in its capacity as the territory’s rulers.
Air raid sirens sounded in southern Israel throughout the day. By late afternoon, the military said some 150 rockets had been fired into Israel by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. It said dozens of rockets were intercepted by its Iron Dome rocket-defense system, and that roads near the Gaza border were closed to civilian traffic. Israeli police said they had dispatched bomb disposal experts to the country’s south to deal with projectiles that landed in open areas.
The army said its chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, convened an emergency session with top security officials to discuss the situation. Later, it said it had hit 30 targets in Gaza, including what it said were five Hamas military compounds and a “high-end Islamic Jihad tunnel” prepared to attack Israel.
COGAT, the Israeli defense body responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs, said it was closing the fishing zone off Gaza’s coast altogether and sealing Israel’s two land crossings with Gaza. The crossings are used by Palestinian medical patients to enter and exit the territory, and provide the main entry for cargo into the blockaded territory.
The European Union’s ambassador to Israel, Emanuele Giaufret, sharply criticized the rocket attacks on Twitter, saying “firing indiscriminately against civilians (is) unacceptable.”
Islamic Jihad, which sometimes acts independently of Hamas, threatened to fire longer range rockets toward Israel’s heartland. In a video that also was seen an implicit claim of responsibility, it showed archived footage of militants attaching warheads to rockets.
Israel and Egypt have maintained a crippling blockade on Gaza since Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007. The sides are bitter enemies and have fought three wars and engaged in numerous smaller flare-ups of violence.
Following heavy fighting in late March, Israel agreed to ease the blockade in exchange for a halt to rocket fire. This included expanding a fishing zone off Gaza’s coast, increasing imports into Gaza and allowing the Gulf state of Qatar to deliver aid to cash-strapped Gaza.
But like previous Egyptian-mediated agreements, those understandings have shown signs of unraveling in recent days.
On Friday, two Palestinians were fatally shot by Israeli forces during the weekly protests along Israel-Gaza perimeter fence. Palestinian militants also shot and wounded two Israeli soldiers along the border fence. No group claimed responsibility for the shooting. In response, Israeli aircraft carried out retaliatory strikes, killing two Hamas militants.
Hamas has hoped that Egyptian mediators could further ease the blockade, which has ravaged Gaza’s economy. For over a year, the Islamic group has orchestrated mass demonstrations each week along the Israeli frontier to draw attention to Gaza’s plight. More than 200 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier have been killed in the border protests.