Palestinian militants have bombarded southern Israel with dozens of rockets and mortar shells, while Israeli war planes struck targets throughout the Gaza Strip in the largest flare-up of violence between the sides since the 2014 war.
The Israeli military said most of the projectiles were intercepted, but three soldiers were wounded, raising the chances of further Israeli retaliation. One mortar shell landed near a kindergarten shortly before it opened.
The sudden burst of violence follows weeks of mass Palestinian protests along the Gaza border with Israel. More than 110 Palestinians, many of them unarmed protesters, have been killed by Israeli fire in that time.
Israel said it holds Gaza’s Hamas rulers responsible for the bloodshed.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Israel will exact a heavy price from those who seek to harm it, and we see Hamas as responsible for preventing such attacks.”
Israel and Hamas are bitter enemies and have fought three wars since the Islamic group seized control of Gaza in 2007.
The last war in 2014 was especially devastating, with more than 2,000 Palestinians killed, including hundreds of civilians, and widespread damage inflicted on Gaza’s infrastructure in 50 days of fighting. Seventy-two people were killed on the Israeli side.
Tuesday’s violence bore a striking resemblance to the run-up to past wars. In the early morning, Palestinian militants fired more than two dozen mortar rounds into southern Israel, including the shell that landed near the kindergarten.
The Israeli military said it carried out over 35 air strikes on seven sites across Gaza, including an unfinished tunnel near the southern city of Rafah that crossed under the border into Egypt and from there into Israeli territory. No Palestinian casualties were reported.
Palestinian militants continued to fire additional barrages toward southern Israel, setting off air raid sirens in the area throughout the day and into the evening.
Brig Gen Ronen Manelis, the chief military spokesman, threatened tougher action and said it was up to Hamas to stop the situation from escalating.
He told reporters outside Israeli military HQ: “These strikes will continue to intensify as long as necessary if this fire continues.”
Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant issued a joint statement, claiming shared responsibility for firing rockets and projectiles against Israeli communities near Gaza.
Hamas has been severely weakened by the three wars with Israel, as well as a stifling Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has brought the local economy to a standstill.
Hamas initially billed the weekly border protests as a call to break through the fence and return to homes that were lost 70 years ago during the war surrounding Israel’s establishment.
However, the protests appear to be fuelled primarily by a desire to ease the blockade. Gaza’s unemployment rate is edging toward 50%, and the territory suffers from chronic power outages.
With limited options at its disposal, and a failure so far of the protests to significantly ease the blockade, Hamas appears to be gambling that limited rocket fire might somehow shake up the situation.
Ismail Radwan, a Hamas official, said the resistance “is capable of hurting the occupation and it proved this today by responding to its crimes”.
Israel said the blockade is needed to prevent Hamas from building up its military capabilities.