Israel strikes Gaza militant sites, Palestinians fire rockets

REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

Israeli aircraft struck militant targets in the Gaza Strip and Palestinians launched dozens of mortar bombs and rockets from the enclave into Israel on Saturday, the Israeli military said.

The exchange of fire followed a familiar pattern of retaliatory attacks by the Israeli military and Palestinian armed groups across the Gaza-Israel border, which has seen an escalation of violence over the past few months.

A Palestinian official who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity said Egypt and other international players were holding contacts with Israel and Gaza to restore calm. There was no immediate comment from officials in Cairo.

The Israeli military said it struck more than 40 targets within several militant compounds belonging to Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, in what it described as one of its widest operations since a 2014 Israel-Gaza war.

The powerful blasts shook Gaza homes and black plumes of smoke were seen rising from the sites of the explosions.

Gaza militants fired more than 50 mortar bombs and rockets towards Israel, the military said, setting off sirens and sending Israelis fleeing to their shelters.

However, it appeared that neither Israel nor Hamas were seeking further escalation and there were no reports of serious casualties on either side of the border.

Gaza militants often vacate potential target sites during flare-ups and Israelis who live in villages and towns near the border have reinforced rooms in their homes and rocket sirens that alert of an incoming attack. Israel’s Iron Dome rocket interceptor system often shoots down Gaza projectiles.

PROTESTS

The flare-up began on Friday, when thousands of Palestinians gathered at the Israel-Gaza border area for weekly protests that have now entered their fourth month. Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian teenager and a second protester died of his wounds on Saturday, Gaza health officials said.

The Israeli military said Friday’s protesters were throwing burning tyres, stones, explosive devices and fire bombs at its soldiers and that one of its officers was wounded by a Palestinian grenade hurled across the border fence.

Hours later, the military launched a series of air strikes in Gaza. Palestinian militants then began firing projectiles into Israel, drawing further strikes by the Israeli air force to which the armed groups responded by launching more rockets.

Israel says Hamas has been orchestrating the weekly protests to distract from governance problems and provide cover for militants’ cross-border attacks.

Hamas denies this and its spokesman Fawzi Barhoum blamed Israel on Saturday for the escalation.

The Israeli military said Hamas was responsible for a steady escalation of violence along the frontier.

More than 130 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in the protests.

There have been no Israeli fatalities during the so-called “Great March of Return” demonstrations but big tracts of Israeli land have been ravaged by fires set by blazing kites or helium balloons carrying burning rags floated over from Gaza.

Home to two million Palestinians, Gaza has suffered deep poverty with vital infrastructure collapsing under a 12-year blockade by Israel, which says its aim is to curb security threats by Hamas.

Egypt keeps tight restrictions on its border crossing with Gaza. Organisers say the demonstrations aim to press demands for a right to lands lost to Israel in the 1948 war of its foundation and for the blockade to ease.