Hamas, the rulers of Gaza, have vowed revenge for a covert Israeli mission that left eight people dead including one of its commanders on Sunday.
Undercover Israeli special forces entered around two kilometres into the territory in a civilian car near the southern Gazan city of Khan Younis, opening fire when they were discovered, the Al Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s armed wing, said in a statement.
The clash killed seven Palestinians, including local commander Noor Baraka, and one Israeli officer. It was unclear if all of the Palestinians killed were Hamas fighters. The trading of fire prompted dozens of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza and returning rocket fire into Israel. The strikes killed several people, allowing the Israeli officers to evacuate.
The group said that “the blood of the martyrs will not be without price” and "the battle between us and the enemy is continuing”. Mosheer Almasry, a Hamas leader, said the operation represented the “establishment of a new stage of our struggle with the occupation”.
Israeli military chief, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said a “special force” carried out “a very meaningful operation to Israel's security,” but did not provide further details.
The clash threatened to further escalate tensions between the two sides that have fought three wars since 2008 and put a nail in Egyptian-led efforts to secure a long-term truce. Both had agreed to indirect cash and fuel deals with Qatar and Egypt last week and it was not clear if they would continue.
Another Hamas leader, Ismael Radwan, said the attack “let the mediators know that the real murder is the Israeli occupation who keep attack our people". He added that Israel “does not care about the Egyptian efforts”.
Hussam Aldejani, a Gaza-based political analyst, told The National that the clash indicated the preparedness of the Hamas fighters in responding to a secretive Israeli operation.
“The Israeli army was intended to commit a silent operation in Gaza and not leave any impact of it, only to befuddle the unity of Palestinian street, but the operation failed,” Mr Aldejani said.
On Monday, thousands of Palestinians participated in the funerals of the seven Gazans killed in the attack, burying them and chanting for revenge against Israel. The burials of several of those killed were led by Hamas leader in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh.
Hamas bolstered its checkpoints in the territory after the incursion. At least 15 rockets were fired into southern Israel late on Sunday. On Monday, a rocket fired from Gaza struck a bus, critically injuring a 19-year-old man. Israel said it was carrying out strikes across Gaza in response.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a visit to Paris because of the flare-up, and he returned to Israel on Monday for consultations with top security officials.
In a tweet after his arrival back home, Netanyahu praised the slain officer, whose identity was being kept confidential for security reasons, and said "our forces acted courageously." The officer's funeral was being held Monday.
Clashes between Israel and Hamas have threatened another outbreak of war in the territory. Weekly protests since March 30 against Israel’s siege of the enclave have turned deadly, with Israeli forces killing at least 220 people, many of them unarmed and targeted by snipers, others killed in airstrikes and tank fire. The rallies were a call to return to lands lost to Israel at its creation in 1948.
Israel severely restricts the access of goods and the crossing of Gazan residents through Israel. It maintains a blockade on Gaza’s coastline and has destroyed its airport, preventing any air transport in and out of the territory.
But Mr Netanyahu had allowed $15 million in Qatari money to enter the territory last week, a move criticised by several senior ministers. The money was intended to help pay salaries.
A total of $90 million is to be distributed in six monthly instalments, Gaza authorities said.
"I'm doing what I can, in coordination with the security establishment, to return quiet to the southern communities," Mr Netanyahu said late on Saturday.