Rockets from Gaza killed three people in an Israeli city while five Palestinian militants died on Sunday in surging cross-border fighting that included a return by Israel to singling out enemy commanders for attack.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he ordered the military to continue ‘massive strikes’ against Gaza’s ruling Hamas group and Islamic Jihad, in the most serious border clashes since a spate of fighting in November.
Israel’s military said more than 450 rockets, many intercepted by its Iron Dome anti-missile system, have been fired at southern Israeli cities and villages since Friday, and it attacked some 220 targets belonging to Gaza militant groups.
A rocket that hit a house in Ashkelon killed a 58-year-old Israeli man, police said. He was the first such Israeli civilian fatality since the seven-week-long Gaza war in 2014. Separate strikes on the southern Israeli city killed two men, a local hospital official said.
In Gaza, at least four Palestinian gunmen were killed in Israeli strikes, health officials said.
In a separate strike it described as a targeted attack, Israel’s military killed Hamed Ahmed Al-Khodary, a Hamas commander. The military said he was responsible for transferring funds from Iran to armed factions in Gaza.
The air strike on his car was the first such killing of a top militant since the war five years ago. Israel had suspended such attacks in a bid to lower tensions.
The sounds of sirens and explosions reverberated on both sides of the frontier, fraying nerves and keeping schools closed.
The latest round of violence began two days ago when an Islamic Jihad sniper fired at Israeli troops, wounding two soldiers, according to the Israeli military.
Islamic Jihad accused Israel of delaying implementation of previous understandings brokered by Egypt aimed at ending violence and easing blockaded Gaza’s economic hardship.
This time, Israeli strategic affairs analysts said, both Islamic Jihad and Hamas militants appeared to believe they had some leverage to press for concessions from Israel, where independence day celebrations begin on Wednesday.
Israel is also hosting Eurovision Song Contest in Rehovot, southeast of Tel Aviv, in two weeks, and sirens sounded there on Sunday.
In a statement announcing Israel would press on with its attacks, Netanyahu, who doubles as defence minister, also ordered forces around the Gaza Strip to be ‘stepped up with tanks, artillery and infantry’.
For residents in Gaza, the escalation comes a day before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins in the territory on Monday. It is traditionally a time for prayer, family feasts to break a daylight fast and shopping.
Since Friday, 13 Palestinians of whom five were civilians have been killed in Gaza. They included a 14-month-old baby and the baby’s aunt in an air strike, the health ministry said.
Israel’s military said its intelligence information showed they were killed by a misfired Palestinian rocket.
A UN envoy said it was working with Egypt to try to end the fighting.
Israeli bombings in Gaza destroyed two multi-storey structures. Witnesses said the Israeli military had warned people inside to evacuate the buildings, which it alleged housed Hamas security facilities, before they were hit.
Saeed Al-Nakhala, owner of a clothing store in one of the buildings, said he had had no time to save his merchandise.
‘I was together with my son in the shop, there was a big noise and then another and people started to run. We left everything behind and escaped,’ said Nakhala.
Some 2 million Palestinians live in Gaza, whose economy has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’s West Bank-based rival.
Unemployment in Gaza stands at 52 per cent, according to the World Bank, and poverty is rampant.
Israel says its blockade is necessary to stop weapons reaching Hamas, with which it has fought three wars since the group seized control of Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its settlers and troops from the area.
The sound of sirens cut into the 1:00pm (1000 GMT) news on Israel Radio, with the broadcaster warning residents in the south to take cover.
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