GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday he ordered the military to continue “massive strikes” against militants in Gaza as a surge in cross-border hostilities ran into a third day. A rocket fired from Gaza killed an Israeli civilian on Sunday while four Palestinians, at least two of them gunmen, were…
GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday he ordered the military to continue “massive strikes” against militants in Gaza as a surge in cross-border hostilities ran into a third day.
A rocket fired from Gaza killed an Israeli civilian on Sunday while four Palestinians, at least two of them gunmen, were killed in Israeli strikes in the most serious border clashes since a spate of fighting in November.
Israel’s military said more than 450 rockets, many of them 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.
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.
And this time, Israeli strategic affairs analysts said, both Islamic Jihad and Hamas, the militant group that runs Gaza, appeared to believe they have some leverage to press for concessions from Israel, where independence day celebrations begin on Wednesday.
On Sunday sirens sounded in the city of Rehovot, some 17 km (10.5 miles) southeast of Tel Aviv. The city is preparing to host the Eurovision Song Contest in two weeks.
In a statement, Netanyahu, who doubles as defense minister, said: “This morning I instructed the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) to continue with massive strikes against terrorists in the Gaza Strip and I also instructed that forces around the Gaza Strip be stepped up with tank, artillery and infantry forces.”
For residents in Gaza, the escalation comes ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in the territory on Monday. It is traditionally a time for prayer, family feasts to break a daylight fast and shopping.
Israeli police said one of the rockets launched on Sunday hit a house in the city of Ashkelon, killing a 58-year-old man. He was the first Israeli civilian casualty in such an attack from Gaza since a 2014 war with militants in the enclave.
Since Friday, 12 Palestinians, at least five of them gunmen, have been killed in Gaza, the local health ministry said.
They included a 14-month-old baby, and a woman, initially identified as her pregnant mother, but later named by family as the infant’s aunt, who the ministry said were killed in an Israeli air strike.
Israel’s military denied involvement, saying its intelligence information showed they were killed by a misfired Palestinian rocket.
A U.N. envoy said it was working with Egypt to try to end the fighting, which has sent residents on both sides of the Israel-Gaza border racing for shelter. Schools in Gaza and southern Israel were closed.
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, surveyed the rubble on Sunday and said he 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. “Then the whole placed was destroyed.”
The sound of sirens cut into the 1 p.m. (1000 GMT) hourly news on Israel Radio, with the broadcaster warning residents in the south, including the major city of Beersheba, to take cover.
Over the past few weeks, Cairo’s mediation had helped persuade Israel to lift some restrictions on the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza and to expand the Mediterranean zone where Gazans can fish.
But Israel scaled back the fishing zone this week in response to rocket fire and shut the border crossings entirely on Saturday after barrages from Gaza.
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 percent, 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.
Writing by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Jason Neely
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