Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) – Israeli air strikes in the Gaza Strip killed three Palestinians on Monday after a barrage of rocket fire into its territory from the enclave, as renewed violence threatened to derail efforts to end months of unrest.
The flare-up came after a deadly Israeli special forces operation in the Gaza Strip on Sunday that left Hamas vowing revenge.
Israel’s military said it had so far struck more than 70 militant sites in response to over 200 rockets fired from the Hamas-run territory Monday afternoon into the evening.
Missile defences had intercepted 60 of the rockets and most others fell in open areas, though some hit houses and other civilian structures, the military said. Medics reported at least seven Israelis wounded.
The army said an Israeli bus was hit by an anti-tank missile from the Gaza Strip in the area of the Kfar Aza kibbutz, causing several injuries. A soldier was severely wounded, it said.
A joint statement from Palestinian militant groups in Gaza, including Hamas, claimed responsibility for the rocket fire and the missile attack on the bus, which it said was being used by Israeli soldiers.
Israeli military spokesman Jonathan Conricus said he could not yet provide further details on the bus or its passengers.
Gaza’s health ministry said three Palestinians were killed in the Israeli strikes and nine wounded.
Militant group the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine said two were its members, while the third was from Islamic Jihad’s armed wing.
Hamas said the rocket fire was in revenge for the deadly Israeli operation late Sunday.
On Sunday, a clash erupted during the covert operation in the Gaza Strip that killed seven Palestinian militants, including a local commander for Hamas’s armed wing, as well as an Israeli army officer.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a trip to Paris and rushed home as tensions rose, and on Monday convened a meeting of security chiefs.
– ‘Exchange of fire’ –
Israel had stressed its covert operation on Sunday was an intelligence-gathering mission and “not an assassination or abduction”, but Hamas strongly denounced it and vowed revenge.
Israel signalled that Sunday’s mission did not go as planned and resulted in the clash, which Palestinian officials said included Israeli air strikes.
In the immediate aftermath of the clash, Israel said it identified 17 launches — likely rockets or mortars — toward its territory from Gaza, with three intercepted by missile defences. No injuries were reported.
Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, said the Israeli special forces team had infiltrated near Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip in a civilian car.
Al-Qassam agents stopped it and wanted to search it, realised it was an Israeli operation and confronted them, it said in a statement.
An exchange of fire followed in which local Al-Qassam commander Nour Baraka was killed along with another militant, it said.
The car then attempted to flee and Israeli aircraft provided covering fire.
An Israeli helicopter landed near the fence and took away the special forces troops, according to Al-Qassam.
Israel’s military declined to comment on the Al-Qassam account “because of the sensitive nature of the operation”.
A funeral was held for the seven Palestinian militants on Monday attended by thousands, including masked Al-Qassam members carrying rifles, some firing into the air.
On the Israeli side of the border, residents said they had stayed close to shelters throughout the night into Monday morning.
“I was sitting in my living room and around 10 pm or 11 pm, I suddenly heard the sound of helicopter gunships firing,” said Gadi Yarkoni, head of a regional council in the area and a resident of Nirim Kibbutz.
– Truce bid –
The clashes came after months of deadly unrest along the Gaza-Israel border had appeared to be calming.
Recent weeks have seen Israel allow Qatar to provide the Gaza Strip with millions of dollars in aid for salaries as well as fuel to help ease an electricity crisis.
Before the flare-up, Netanyahu had defended his decision to allow Qatar to transfer the cash to Gaza despite criticism from within his own government over the move, saying he wanted to avoid a war if it was not necessary.
Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza have fought three wars since 2008, and recent months have raised fears of a fourth.
Deadly clashes have accompanied major protests along the Gaza-Israel border that began on March 30.
At least 231 Palestinians have since been killed by Israeli fire, the majority shot during protests and clashes, while others died in tank fire or air strikes.
Two Israeli soldiers have been killed in that time.
Egyptian and UN officials have been mediating between Israel and Hamas in an effort to reach a long-term truce deal.