Israel’s army and Gaza militants traded heavy cross-border fire Wednesday, with 20 Palestinians killed over two days amid the worst escalation of violence to hit the coastal territory in months.
Smoke billowed from the densely-populated coastal enclave after Israel announced it was targeting rocket launch sites of the militant group Islamic Jihad.
Gaza’s health ministry said five people were killed, a day after Israeli strikes on the Palestinian territory left 15 dead.
Sirens wailed in the Tel Aviv area warning of incoming rocket fire, an AFP journalist reported, and in communities close to the border according to the army.
An AFP journalist in Gaza saw dozens of projectiles fired, while in a joint statement Palestinian militant factions said “hundreds of rockets” were launched.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is “ready for the possibility of an expanded campaign and harsh strikes against Gaza,” in a meeting with local leaders near the coastal territory.
Israel’s Magen David Adom emergency service said it had received no immediate reports of casualties.
Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system intercepted rockets above the coastal city of Ashkelon and elsewhere in the south, AFP photographers witnessed.
The latest violence comes a day after Israeli strikes on Gaza killed three top Islamic Jihad militants and 12 others, including four children, according to a health ministry toll.
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Hundreds of rockets continue to be fired from the Gaza strip to Tel Aviv, Israel. Alarms are sounding in many parts of Israel. iron dome air defense system continues to destroy most rockets in mid-air#İsrael #gaza #غزة #israil #Palestine #فلسطين pic.twitter.com/WlydSUrkCh
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‘Tension and Fear’
Israel’s military said Wednesday’s strikes included firing on militants “who were traveling to a rocket launch site in the city of Khan Yunis” in southern Gaza.
Islamic Jihad had vowed Tuesday to retaliate, with Israel warning its residents near the border to stay near bomb shelters.
Ahead of Wednesday’s exchange of fire, Gaza’s usually bustling shops were closed.
People in Gaza “expect the worst,” said resident Monther Abdullah, 50. “Everyone feels anxious and people aren’t on the street much.”
“I definitely feel like there’s a war coming, and there’s tension and fear, whether here or there.”
The latest violence comes on the second anniversary of a devastating 11-day war fought between Gaza militants and Israel.
Hamas spokesman Abdul Latif Al-Qanou said Wednesday “the strikes of the unified resistance are part of the process of responding to the massacre committed by (Israel).”
Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are considered terrorist organisations by Israel and the United States.
West Bank Deaths
Among those killed Tuesday were four children and three senior Islamic Jihad operatives.
The top militants were named as Jihad Ghannam, Khalil al-Bahtini, and Tareq Ezzedine, a Gaza-based militant leader in the West Bank.
Earlier Wednesday, Israeli troops raided the West Bank town of Qabatiya, killing two people whom the army accused of firing at soldiers.
The Palestinian health ministry identified the two men as Ahmed Jamal Tawfiq Assaf, 19, and Rani Walid Ahmed Qatanat, 24.
The Israeli military said troops detained one person during the raid when soldiers were shot at from a vehicle.
“The soldiers responded with live fire toward the two assailants and killed them,” the army said.
Mourners including armed militants later carried the two men’s bodies through the streets in a funeral procession.
Israel has occupied the West Bank since the Six-Day War of 1967 and its forces regularly operate in Palestinian cities.
The Arab League on Wednesday condemned the “aggressive (and) barbaric Israeli raids on the Gaza Strip, which targeted civilians, children and women in residential neighborhoods.”
The Gaza violence this week is the worst since a three-day escalation in August killed 49 Palestinians, with no Israeli fatalities.
Washington called for “all parties to de-escalate the situation.”
While Hamas has fought multiple wars with Israel in recent years, the group stayed on the sidelines of last year’s conflict fought between Israel and Islamic Jihad.
The latest violence brings to 130 the number of Palestinians killed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so far this year.
Nineteen Israelis, one Ukrainian and one Italian have been killed over the same period, according to an AFP count based on official sources from the two sides.
These figures include combatants as well as civilians, and, on the Israeli side, three members of the country’s Arab minority.