Israelis, Palestinians exchange fire over Gaza border

An Israeli airstrike destroyed a vacant multi-storey building in the Gaza Strip on Saturday, killing two teenagers who were passing by, local health officials said, and Palestinian militants fired dozens of rockets into southern Israel.

It was one of the most serious flare-ups of fighting since the 2014 Israel-Gaza war, but Israel’s chief military spokesman, Brigadier-General Ronen Manelis, said it was premature to say whether it heralded the start of a broader campaign against militants in the enclave, run by the Islamist movement Hamas.

Three people were wounded in Israel when a rocket struck the southern town of Sderot, police said.

Tension had been building since Friday, when Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian teenager during protests on the Gaza border where weekly Palestinian protests — including attempts to breach Israel’s border fence — have drawn live fire, and an Israeli soldier was wounded. A second Palestinian protester died of his wounds on Saturday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “We will expand the scope of our reaction to Hamas’ terror attacks as much as needed. If Hamas doesn’t get our message today, it will tomorrow.”

Sporadic Palestinian rocket attacks and incendiary kites from Gaza that have burned large tracts of farmland in Israeli border areas have increased public pressure on Netanyahu for a stronger armed response.

The Israeli military said it had struck more than 40 targets within several militant compounds belonging to Hamas, in what it described as one of its widest operations since the 2014 conflict.

The blasts shook homes and shattered windows, and black plumes of smoke rose from the sites of the explosions.

The Israeli military said one airstrike had hit a high-rise building in al-Shati refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, describing the target as a Hamas urban warfare training facility with a tunnel underneath.

2 teens killed

Health officials in Gaza said the building was empty, but two Palestinians aged 15 and 16, among a crowd in a nearby public park, were killed.

Around 10 other passers-by were wounded, the officials said. Nearby houses were damaged.

During the day’s fighting, Gaza militants fired more than 90 mortar bombs and rockets toward Israel, the military said, setting off sirens and sending Israelis fleeing to shelters. Some were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missiles.

Rocket warning sirens went off in the coastal city of Ashkelon, about 12 kilometres from the enclave, further north than in recent rocket attacks. A police spokesman said no hits had been identified in the city.

An Israeli soldier inspects a place where a rocket fell near the Israeli Kibbutz of Nachal Oz, on the Israeli side near the Gaza border. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

A Palestinian official who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity said Egypt and other international players were holding contacts with Israel and Gaza to restore calm. There was no immediate comment from officials in Cairo.

The weekly protests at Israel-Gaza border area have now entered their fourth month.

The Israeli military said Friday’s protesters were throwing burning tires, stones, explosive devices and fire bombs at its soldiers and that one of its officers was wounded by a Palestinian grenade hurled across the border fence.

Hours later, the military launched a series of airstrikes in Gaza.

Israel says Hamas has been orchestrating the weekly protests to distract from governance problems and provide cover for militants’ cross-border attacks. Hamas denies this. Its spokesman Fawzi Barhoum blamed Israel on Saturday for the escalation.

Protests become deadly

More than 130 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in the protests.

There have been no Israeli fatalities during the so-called “Great March of Return” demonstrations.

Gaza is home to two million Palestinians. Poverty is widespread and vital infrastructure has collapsed under a 12-year blockade by Israel, which says its aim is to curb security threats by Hamas.

Egypt also keeps tight restrictions on its border crossing with Gaza. Organizers say the demonstrations aim to press demands for a right to lands lost to Israel in the 1948 war of its foundation, and for the blockade to ease.

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