Israeli forces exchange intense fire with Hamas militants in Gaza
Two Palestinian teens were killed by Israeli airstrikes, and four Israelis were wounded by rocket fire on Saturday in a continual escalation of the conflict between Israel and Palestinian militias in Gaza.
The Israeli army bombed more than 40 Hamas targets in the past 24 hours, and almost 100 rockets were launched at southern Israeli communities where some 200,000 residents have sought safety in air-raid shelters.
Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist militia that has ruled the Gaza Strip for more than 10 years, operates under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade.
Blasts and alarms warning of incoming rockets and missiles sounded throughout the day and night in Gaza. On the Israeli side of the border, the Israeli army said air-raid sirens sounded 160 times in the past 24 hours.
Brig. Gen. Tzvika Haimovic of the Israeli air forces said that Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad had launched 100 mortars and rockets and that Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepted 20 incoming projectiles. As evening fell, police bomb-disposal units were disarming rockets that had fallen at four sites in the western Negev desert city of Sderot.
In a statement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel would intensity its response as necessary.
“If Hamas doesn’t understand the message today, it will understand it tomorrow,” he said.
Hazem Qassem, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, accused Israel of starting the aggression and said the Palestinians were merely responding to attacks.
“The occupation must stop this aggression first to reach a truce with the Palestinian factions in Gaza,” he said.
Another Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum, also insisted Israel was the aggressor.
“Following a ruthless Israeli aggression that targeted the Gaza Strip early Saturday morning, traumatizing children, women and the elderly, the Palestinian resistance factions responded appropriately by targeting Israeli Occupation military sites,” he said on the group’s website.
Ashraf Alkadra, a spokesman for the Gazan ministry of health, said that 25 Palestinians were wounded and hospitalized following the strikes.
In a briefing with reporters, Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said the army restrained itself to “military targets only” that included four Hamas military compounds in Gaza, including two Hamas tunnels, weapon depots, training facilities and command centers. Conricus said it was the largest daytime air assault on Gaza since the 2014 war.
According to the Israeli army, Israeli fighter jets also struck a high-rise building serving as a Hamas training facility in the Al-Shati refugee camp in northern Gaza.
Following a briefing for commanders held by Israeli military Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the Israeli army said it planned to “intensify its strikes in the Gaza Strip as deemed necessary” and continue to improve the security situation and strengthen the sense of security of the residents of southern Israel.”
Israel’s cabinet will meet Sunday to discuss the escalation that continued despite Egyptian-sponsored mediation efforts apparently underway.
Hamas confirmed “international communication with the movement” regarding a possible cease-fire, but rocket and missile launches aimed at Israel continued unabated into the evening.
A Palestinian official who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity said Egypt and other international players were in contact with Israel and Gaza to “restore calm” that has been elusive since March, when Palestinian protests started along the border with Israel.
According to Palestinian ministry of health figures published Friday, 139 Palestinians have been killed since the protests began.
“The resistance will not allow the occupation to bomb and kill our people, and its response will be present in every escalation,” said Abdel Latif Qanou of Hamas. “The occupation bears the consequences of that.”
The Salah al-Din Brigades, the military wing of the Popular Resistance Committees, a group of Palestinian Islamist militant organizations operating in the Gaza Strip, posted a statement warning Israelis in border communities “to completely abandon the area and evacuate your homes because you are raping our land and all of you in the circle of targeting that will gradually expand. Save your lives.”
Times special correspondents Tarnopolsky reported from Jerusalem and Salah from Gaza City.
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