Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered “massive strikes” against militant groups in Gaza on Sunday in response to a barrage of rocket fire, stretching hostilities into a third day and leading to mounting casualties on both sides.
At a cabinet meeting on Sunday Netanyahu said he also instructed military leaders to boost tank artillery and infantry forces around the Gaza Strip.
“Hamas bears responsibility not only for its own attacks and actions but also those by Islamic Jihad, for which it pays a very high price,” he said.
Gaza militant groups have launched at least 600 rockets and mortars at Israel since the latest conflict began, while the military has struck what it says are hundreds of Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets in the coastal enclave, Israel Defense Forces said on Twitter.
At least three Israeli men and nine Palestinians have been killed since the violence erupted, and more than 100 people have been wounded on each side of the Israel-Gaza border since tensions flared. Among them, a pregnant Palestinian woman and a 14-month-old infant. Gazan health officials blamed Israeli strikes for their deaths, but the IDF disputes that, claiming it was a rocket shot from inside Gaza killed them.
A 58-year-old man killed by a rocket that hit his home was the first Israeli fatality in the weekend skirmish. The Barzilai University Medical Center in Ashkelon confirmed two Israeli civilians died from rocket fire from Gaza.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad announced that two of its members had been killed in East Gaza City in Israeli airstrikes. And at least four gunman were killed in separate strikes, Reuters reported.
The IDF said it targeted and killed Hamid Ahmed Abdul Khudri, whom it accused of helping fund the rocket fire attacks by transferring money from Iran to militant groups inside of Gaza.
“Transferring Iranian money to Hamas & the [Palestinian Islamic Jihad doesn’t make you a businessman. It makes you a terrorist,” IDF wrote in a tweet that included a photo of a charred Toyota engulfed in flames.
Other Israeli targets include a tunnel, rocket launcher sites, mosques and other military compounds it alleges are used by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
An Army spokesman told NPR’s Naomi Zeveloff that at least 150 of the Palestinian-launched projectiles were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. He added that the Army is preparing to deploy an armored brigade for an offensive mission if needed.
The latest conflict was sparked on Friday after militants shot and injured two Israeli soldiers. The attack prompted swift military retaliation, which resulted in the deaths of two militants. That, in turn, led to an onslaught of mortar and rocket fire from within Gaza, unraveling the tenuous calm
It is one of the most serious conflicts in the region since the 2014 war, which lasted seven weeks and killed dozens of Israeli soldiers and several civilians and on the Palestinian side, left more than 2,000 people dead, including hundreds of civilians and militants.
The fighting broke out as Egyptian mediators had been trying to negotiate a long term cease fire, in exchange for Israel loosening restrictions on Gaza.
U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Nickolay Mladenov decried the violence from within Gaza. “I condemn the continuing launching of rockets from Gaza. Enough Palestinian and Israeli lives have been lost, people injured, houses damaged and destroyed!” he said in a tweet, urging both sides to “return to the understandings of the past few months before it is too late.”