Five Palestinians have been killed and 30 injured by Israeli shelling after militants fired on an Israeli jeep, wounding four soldiers, sources said on one of the deadliest days of fighting for years.
The flare-up on Saturday was one of the most serious clashes in a single day since Israel’s devastating 22-day operation in the Gaza Strip over New Year 2009.
A Palestinian militant was killed and two other people wounded in an Israeli air strike on northern Gaza just before midnight (2200 GMT), medical sources and witnesses said.
The dead man was named as Mohammed Shwikani, a 20-year-old militant with the armed wing of Islamic Jihad, the group said.
The Israeli army launched a series of six air raids to the north and east of Gaza City, which left two more people injured, Palestinian witnesses and medical sources said.
The army said in a statement that the raids had targeted arms dumps and an arms factory “in response to recent events”.
It was just the latest in a spate of attacks and counter-attacks between the army and Palestinian militants.
Earlier on Saturday, violence flared along the border east of Gaza City when militants fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli jeep, wounding four soldiers.
In response, Israel fired a barrage of artillery fire and shells, killing three people and wounding 25, five of them seriously, medical officials and witnesses said.
One of the injured died later in hospital.
A spokesman for Gaza’s Hamas government said the four killed were aged between 15 and 20.
Ashraf al-Qudra, spokesman for the Hamas-run health ministry said some of the injured were in “serious to critical condition”, adding the dead and the wounded appeared to be civilians.
Witnesses said the shooting took place after an anti-tank missile slammed into the Israeli jeep near the Karni crossing east of Gaza City, in an attack claimed by the armed wing of the left-leaning Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
The Israeli army confirmed that four soldiers had been wounded by an anti-tank missile.
Military sources said two of the soldiers were in serious condition.
Medics also said five Palestinians were wounded in another instance of Israeli shelling near Khan Yunis in southern Gaza.
The Israeli military said armed groups fired 25 rockets at southern Israel in a matter of hours Saturday.
Late Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held talks with his Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz to discuss the situation in the south, the premier said on Twitter.
“The IDF responded severely to the incident and additional responses will be examined in the coming days,” Barak was quoted as saying in a statement from his office.
The bloodshed was swiftly condemned by the Hamas government, as well as by militant groups, which vowed revenge.
“The occupation attacked Palestinian civilians east of Gaza City and Khan Yunis. We consider this escalation as very dangerous. It must stop immediately,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum.
The armed wing of the radical Popular Resistance Committees also released a statement vowing that “the Zionist enemy will pay a high price for this crime against Gaza”.
And Islamic Jihad also issued a warning, saying: “Every aggression against the Palestinian people will be followed by a response from the resistance.”
In recent days, tensions have been rising between Israeli troops and Gaza militants.
On Thursday, an Israeli soldier was wounded near the border east of Khan Yunis when explosives packed into a tunnel were detonated in an attack claimed by Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades.
Several hours earlier, a 13-year-old Palestinian was shot dead by gunfire from an Israeli helicopter in the same area, medics and witnesses said.
And on Tuesday, three Israeli soldiers were wounded in an another explosion in the same area.
An earlier flare-up in and around Gaza began on October 22 and continued for three days, with eight militants killed in Israeli air strikes, and armed groups firing more than 100 rockets across the border, severely wounding two Thais.
In December 2008, just six weeks shy of general elections, Israel launched a huge operation in Gaza to stamp out Palestinian cross-border rocket fire that cost the lives of 1,400 Palestinians — half of them civilians — and 13 Israelis, 10 of them soldiers.