Gaza: Israeli warplanes killed five militants in Gaza in a second day of cross-border violence in which gunmen have fired dozens of rockets against Israel and an Israeli missile strike killed a prominent militant, both sides said on Saturday.
Fifteen militants in the Gaza Strip have now been killed since Friday, Hamas medics said. In the most recent attack, a gunman was killed in a vehicle near Gaza’s border with Egypt. Earlier in the day Israeli jets killed two gunmen on a motorcycle and two others in a pre-dawn attack, officials in Gaza said.
The sounds of explosions and rocket fire reverberated across coastal Gaza and southern Israel early on Saturday and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said its air strikes would continue.
“This round in the Strip is still far from over,” he told reporters on a visit to the south of the country where around half a million Israelis have been told to stay indoors and keep bomb shelters open.
Six people in southern Israel have been injured by rockets fired from Gaza. One man, a Thai, was reported to be in a serious condition.
The flareup in Gaza is the worst since October, and a further escalation could threaten a wider conflict that may complicate Western efforts to halt bloodshed in the region, including Syria.
Militant groups in Hamas-ruled Gaza vowed to exact revenge for Friday’s killings and the Israeli military said more than 90 rockets had been fired at its territory since Friday, including 25 longer-range Grad rockets which Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile interceptor system shot down. Israeli Prime Minister Benjmain Netanyahu told local officials in towns under fire that the Jewish state would “continue to strike at all those who plan to attack Israeli citizens.” He also promised to supply additional missile defence batteries.
Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), an armed faction largely independent of Gaza’s Islamist Hamas rulers, said it had fired most of the rockets and mortars. The escalating violence drew appeals for a ceasefire from the European Union, the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and neighbour Egypt, whose peace treaty with Israel has been tested by last year’s toppling of Hosni Mubarak. EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, expressed concern. “I urge all sides to re-establish calm,” she said in a statement.
ISRAEL TARGETS WEAPONS
The latest violence began on Friday when Israeli missiles destroyed a car in Gaza City, killing two militant leaders. One of them was involved in plotting a cross-border attack from Egypt, Israel said. Israeli media reported that the man had also been involved in the 2006 capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was freed as part of a prisoner swap in October.
After darkness fell on Friday, further air strikes killed eight more militants in Gaza, Hamas Islamist officials there said. At least 12 civilians were among 26 wounded in the Israeli attacks, medics reported.
Israel said those attacks targeted weapons manufacturing sites and militants attempting to fire rockets.
Egypt’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamal Amr told state news agency MENA that his government was “making crucial calls for an immediate end to this Israeli escalation to end bloodshed of our brothers.” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called for Egyptian aid saying Gaza was “sinking in darkness and in blood.”
In Gaza, thousands attended funerals for the dead militants on Saturday, listening to speeches calling for revenge.
Gaza officials said Israeli troops opened fire on mourners at a burial for an Islamic Jihad militant attended by hundreds at a cemetery near the Israeli frontier fence, wounding four. Israel’s military had no immediate comment on the incident. Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, blamed Israel for the violence and called for Western pressure to stop violence escalating.
“This Israeli escalation in Gaza is completely condemned and we urge the world community, and the Quartet (of Middle East power brokers), especially the United States, to put enough pressure on the Israeli government to stop this escalation,” Rdainah told Reuters Television.
Hamas, an Iranian-backed group that refuses to recognise Israel, did not claim responsibility for any of the missile attacks on Israel, and there were no reported civilian fatalities in Gaza, factors which may prevent the violence escalating. However, Israel says it holds Hamas responsible for any attacks launched from its territory. Hamas seized control of Gaza from Abbas’s Fatah movement in a bloody 2007 coup, two years after Israel pulled its forces out of the territory it had captured in a 1967 war.