By Agence France-Presse
The worst escalation between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza since a 2014 war threatened to descend into full-blown conflict on Tuesday after further barrages of rocket fire and dozens more air strikes overnight.
Six Palestinians were killed in Gaza in less than 24 hours as Israeli strikes targeted militants and flattened buildings while sending fireballs and plumes of smoke into the sky.
Sirens wailed in southern Israel and tens of thousands of residents took cover in shelters as around 400 rockets and mortar rounds were fired from the Gaza Strip, wounding 27 people, including three severely.
A Palestinian laborer from the occupied West Bank was killed when a rocket hit a building in the Israeli city of Ashkelon.
Schools were closed in the Gaza Strip and in southern Israel as both sides warned the other that it would respond forcefully to any further violence.
A spokesman for Hamas’s armed wing, Abu Obeida, threatened to further expand its targets “if the enemy continues to bomb civilian buildings.”
Israeli military spokesman Jonathan Conricus said “what we have signalled to Hamas over this night is that we have the intelligence and capabilities to strike a very wide range of military targets that belong to Hamas.”
Egypt, which has negotiated ceasefires following previous flare-ups, was said to be seeking to restore calm.
UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov, who along with Egypt had been seeking a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas, called the escalation “extremely dangerous” and said on Twitter that “restraint must be shown by all”.
‘Like an earthquake’
The latest round of violence began on Sunday with a botched Israeli special forces operation inside the Gaza Strip that turned deadly and prompted Hamas to vow revenge.
The clash that resulted from the blown covert operation killed seven Palestinian militants, including a local Hamas military commander, as well as an Israeli army officer.
Palestinian militants responded with rocket and mortar fire, as well as an anti-tank missile that hit a bus that Hamas says was being used by Israeli soldiers. A soldier was severely wounded in the attack.
Missile defences intercepted more than 100 rockets from Gaza and most others fell in open areas, though some hit houses and other civilian structures.
“Within two seconds (after air sirens) we heard a huge boom, we saw our curtains flying in the air, windows (broken), and only after a few minutes when we went out, we realised that the missile had hit the building next to us,” said Claude Bonfito, who lives near an block of flats hit by a rocket in the Israeli city of Ashkelon.
Israel hit back with major air strikes, with targets including Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV station and internal security headquarters in Gaza City.
The military says it has so far struck some 150 targets in the Gaza Strip.
“What happened was like an earthquake,” said Abu Ayman Lemzeni, who lives near the destroyed TV building.
“As you see, here there is no more the grocery, the pharmacy, the office, the wall, the building.”
Five of the dead in Gaza were claimed as members of various militant groups. Some 25 other people were wounded in the Palestinian territory, according to Gaza’s health ministry.