The armed wing of Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement on Tuesday said it fired 10 Grad rockets at Israel in a rare show of force after three Israeli air strikes killed six Palestinians.
The claim came shortly after Israel Tuesday afternoon staged another air strike over Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, injuring two men on a motorcycle, one of them critically, medics quoted by the AFP said.
Such fire by the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, which generally maintains a tacit truce with Israel, is very rare.
“This is our answer to the Zionist crimes. It will continue if they carry out more strikes on Gaza,” a statement said, with a spokesman confirming it was the first time they had fired such longer-range rockets at Israel since April 2011.
Hospital staff named the dead youths as Mohammed Bassem Abu Mealiq and Yusef al-Talbani, both 17. Witnesses said they had been trying to breach the fence bordering Israel when they were hit, according to AFP news agency reports.
The Israeli military confirmed that 11 rockets had hit southern Israel since midnight, but could not say whether all of them were Grads. Another three rockets were fired on Monday.
A military spokesman also confirmed there was “a targeted strike” on Deir al-Balah but did not have any further information about the target.
On Monday, Israeli aircraft killed four Palestinians in two sorties over the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanun and wounded at least three, Palestinian medics said.
Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades said one of those killed was a member of the group.
The military said he was part of “a terrorist squad attempting to fire a rocket at Israel.”
On Monday afternoon, the army said, a rocket was fired from Gaza into the Hof Ashkelon area and another fell at night. “Altogether six rockets were fired in the past 24 hours,” a spokeswoman told AFP on Tuesday morning.
The last major flareup in Gaza was in March when four days of tit-for-tat violence left 26 Palestinians dead, and saw militants firing more than 200 rockets into Israel.
The fighting erupted when Israel assassinated a militant leader from the Popular Resistance Committees whom it said was responsible for planning an attack along Israel’s southern border with Egypt in August 2011 in which gunmen sneaked over the frontier and killed eight Israelis.
Within hours, Israel hit back at Gaza, sparking eight days of bloodshed that left 26 Palestinians and an Israeli dead.
Monday’s border attack raised fears Israel would once again hold Gaza militants responsible, although there was no such claim in the immediate aftermath of the incident in which an Israeli civilian and two gunmen died.
Asked about the possible involvement of groups from Gaza, Israeli military spokeswoman Avital Leibovich said: “There is speculation about that. Intelligence is checking right now.”
Monday’s strikes came hours after gunmen mounted an early morning deadly ambush along Israel’s southern border with Egypt, killing an Israeli civilian construction worker. Two of the gunmen were shot dead by Israeli troops.
An Israeli military source insisted however that Monday’s air strikes were not related to the ambush.
Israeli media commentators on Tuesday said the ambush was a further symptom of the Sinai peninsula’s descent into lawlessness since last year’s overthrow of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
“It isn’t the same Egypt, it isn’t the same border, the peace accords are on their deathbed and we had better change our operating disc,” Alex Fishman wrote in top-selling Yediot Aharonot, referring to the two states’ 1979 peace treaty.
“We would do well to stop with the word games, to stop saying that there were terror attacks in Sinai when Mubarak was in power as well, and to get used to the fact that the entire length of Israel’s southern border is a hostile border, a confrontation border,” he added.
In Israel Hayom daily, considered close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yoav Limor was gloomier still.
“We have to get used to it: the western border has become a war border. True, with Egypt we still have (cold) peace, but a gulf of hatred and a buffer of terrorism separate us,” he wrote.
Israeli media reported that workmen were on Tuesday back at the scene of the border attack as well as at other construction sites.
In the most serious attack in the area since the Egyptian popular uprising, militants crossed over the Egyptian border and killed eight Israelis in August 2011.
On Saturday, at least two rockets were fired deep into southern Israel, causing no damage or casualties. It was not clear whether they were launched from Gaza or Sinai.
Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, ruled by Islamist Hamas, have launched Grad rockets at Israel from the coastal territory in the past. Israel says militants have also crossed into Sinai to launch similar attacks on its territory.
Overnight on Sunday, Israeli aircraft carried out a series of strikes in the Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire from the enclave. Medical sources in Gaza said seven people were wounded.