Militants fired more than 200 rockets into southern Israel from Gaza and drew retaliatory fire from Israeli jets after a botched Israeli intelligence mission resulted in the deaths of an Israeli soldier and several Palestinians.
The eruption of violence on Monday threatened to escalate into a fiercer conflict and scupper efforts to find a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that has governed the Gaza strip since 2007.
The fighting began when a group of undercover Israeli soldiers were stopped at a checkpoint inside Gaza on Sunday, triggering a gunfight that resulted in the death of the Israeli soldier and seven Palestinians.
The Israeli air force provided cover for the soldiers to escape, hitting locations around the Khan Younis refugee camp, which starts a few hundred metres from the fence separating Gaza and Israel.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a trip to Paris after the overnight escalation of a conflict that has threatened for months to boil over.
Militants in Gaza responded to the Israeli incursion by launching more than 200 rockets in less than three hours — one of the heaviest missile barrages in recent months — hitting an Israeli bus and seriously injuring a passenger, according to the Israeli military.
Schools were shut in the south of Israel and air raid sirens rang out as tens of thousands of Israelis took cover as far away as the Dead Sea.
Israel said its jets bombed 20 military targets inside the Gaza strip. Hamas said at least three Palestinians were killed in the bombing.
Egyptian mediators tried and failed to secure a temporary truce after Hamas fired an initial barrage of 17 rockets into Israel in the morning, a senior Hamas official said.
The Russian government called for restraint. “We call upon the Palestinians and Israelis to immediately return to a sustainable ceasefire, to show restraint, to take measures in order to avoid confrontation with unpredictable consequences,” the foreign ministry in Moscow said.
The outbreak of violence came at a time when Israel and Hamas have been seeking a long-term truce with Egyptian intelligence officials mediating talks in Cairo and Gaza.
Hamas, which says it foiled the Israeli intelligence mission, issued a statement celebrating the death of the soldier, identified by the Israeli military as a lieutenant colonel. President Reuvin Rivlin attended his funeral, telling his children that their father died “a hero”.
On Sunday an intelligence unit with Israeli Druze Arab soldiers was stopped at a checkpoint about 2km inside Gaza, according to a Hamas official. A gunfight ensued when the Hamas militants called for back-up. The Israeli army often uses Druze Arab soldiers in Gaza because they can pass as Palestinians.
Two witnesses said explosions were heard as far as 3km into the strip, and Israeli media said the soldiers were extracted by helicopter.
A commander of Hamas’s military wing, Nur Barakeh, also died, either before the gunfight or during the evacuation of the Israeli troops.
Reports from inside Gaza, including on official radio, said some of the Israeli soldiers were dressed as women, and had travelled to Gaza in civilian vehicles.
A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces said the operation “was not intended to kill or abduct” any Palestinians suspected of terrorism. Israeli soldiers are known to operate inside Gaza occasionally, but direct confrontation between armed Hamas fighters and Israeli soldiers is extremely rare.
Last week, the Israeli government allowed Qatar to transfer $15m in cash to pay the salaries of Hamas municipal employees inside the cash-starved strip of land, hoping it would help calm a population hemmed in by an Israeli land, air and sea blockade for about a decade.
According to Israeli media, Mr Netanyahu told reporters on his plane from Paris: “The thing that creates stability and which undermines stability isn’t a change in the balance of deterrence, but internal volatility, which we have the power to avert.
“We aren’t preventing the entry of food, medicine and clothes, but that isn’t our policy since we need to distinguish between the population and the regime. It’s hard, and it isn’t always possible. Can we reach an arrangement that will last longer and avert humanitarian collapse? I hope so. I’m not sure.”
Mr Netanyahu was referring to an eight-month protest supported by Hamas that has seen tens of thousands of Gazans massing at the border, demanding Israel loosen the restrictions of the blockade.
Israeli snipers have shot and killed more than 150 demonstrators and injured thousands, claiming that they posed a risk to Israeli civilians and soldiers. The Israeli army has released some videos of Palestinians with explosive devices, but eyewitnesses and video showed that the vast majority of protesters, and many of those who were shot, were unarmed.
Hamas has kept the pressure on Israel by condoning the use of balloons as incendiary devices, which are carried by the sea winds into Israeli agricultural land and areas near homes and schools close to the Gaza Strip.
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