Israeli jets launched a series of strikes against targets around Gaza on Tuesday after Palestinian fighters fired dozens of mortar shells at southern Israel in what was the largest barrage since the 2014 war between Hamas and the Israeli military.
The tit-for-tat threatens an escalation that could lead to a new outbreak of conflict in Gaza, what would be the fourth in less than a decade, after Israeli forces killed 116 Palestinians and wounded hundreds more across weekly rounds of protests from March 30 onwards.
The Israeli military struck over 30 targets in response to the 28 mortars that set off sirens in southern Israel and forced regional officials to order residents to remain near air raid shelters.
Palestinians in Gaza then launched another barrage of rockets into southern Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Hamas, Gaza’s rulers, and smaller movement Islamic Jihad of responsibility for the strikes and vowed to respond with force. Islamic Jihad had said it would avenge the death of three of its members a day earlier in Israeli strikes.
Only several of the projectiles fired from Gaza struck Israeli territory, with the majority shot down by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, the military said. One exploded in the yard of a kindergarten, damaging its walls, about an hour before it was scheduled to open for the day.
There were no immediate reports of casualties from either side in the Israeli strikes and Gazan salvoes in the morning and afternoon.
A Hamas spokesman said the mortar attacks were a “natural response to Israeli crimes”. Israel maintains a land, air and sea blockade on the coastal enclave that holds more than two million people, citing security concerns. The UN has described the territory as “unliveable” more than a decade into a crippling siege. Egypt also restricts access in and out of the enclave.
Nickolay Mladenov, the UN's special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said he was deeply concerned by "the indiscriminate firing of rockets by Palestinian militants from Gaza towards communities in southern Israel".
Calling for restraint by all parties, he said at least one of the mortar bombs "hit in the immediate vicinity of a kindergarten and could have killed or injured children".
Gazan anger against the Israeli siege led to protests by Palestinians near the shared border fence. Those rallies took place against the backdrop of crippling economic conditions in Gaza and the US embassy move to Jerusalem on May 14.
On Tuesday, another protest emerged. Organisers of the border rallies launched a boat adorned with Palestinian flags from the Gazan coast in a bid to break Israel’s naval blockade.
Israel maintains a red line of six nautical miles at which it begins shooting at vessels deemed to be in breach of the enclave in either direction. A local journalist confirmed that the Israeli navy surrounded the boat, escorting it to the southern Israeli port city of Ashkelon.
It came on the anniversary of the Mavi Marmara, the ship on which Israeli commandos killed ten Turkish activists in international waters for trying to breach the blockade.
Relations between the Israelis and Palestinians have fallen to arguably their lowest level since the outbreak of war in 2014 that left more than 2,200 Palestinians dead. US-sponsored peace talks stalled before that conflict and were never revived. Israel maintains that talks should be bilateral, while the Palestinians have sought to take their cause to the international arena.
Israel has continued to build settlements across the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the territories that the Palestinians seek for any future state. They withdrew settlers from Gaza in 2005.
The majority of the international community deems Israel’s settlement enterprise to be illegal in nature and a violation of the Geneva Conventions that say a state must not transfer its own population into territory it has occupied.