Israel vows to keep hitting militants as 18 killed in Gaza

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – Israeli airstrikes killed more militants in Gaza yesterday as rocket fire toward Israel resumed after a brief overnight lull, raising the death toll in the strip to 18 Palestinians in the heaviest round of fighting in months.

The military said more than 250 rockets have been fired at Israeli communities since the violence erupted following an Israeli airstrike that killed a senior commander accused of being the mastermind of recent attacks. Israel stepped up its battle against Iran and its proxies across the region.

The latest fighting brought life in much of Israel to a standstill. Schools remained closed in Israeli communities near the Gaza border and restrictions on public gatherings continued as rockets rained down. Those attacks came after the early morning strike on Tuesday killed Bahaa Abu el-Atta and his wife as they were sleeping.

Rocket fire from Gaza reached as far north as Tel Aviv, and two people were wounded by shrapnel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a special Cabinet meeting that Israel has no interest in sparking a wider confrontation but warned the militants that Israel will keep pounding them until the rockets stop.

Firefighters douse the fire after a factory hit by a rocket caught fire in Sderot, southern Israel. PHOTO: AP

“They know we will continue to strike them without mercy,” Netanyahu said. “They have one choice: either stop these attacks or absorb more and more blows.”

Gaza’s Hamas rulers have yet to enter the fray – a possible sign the current round of violence could be brief. With Gaza’s economy in tatters, it appears to have little desire for more fighting with Israel.

Egypt, which frequently mediates between Israel and Gaza militants, has been working to de-escalate tensions, according to Cairo officials. The Gaza militants rejected the efforts, with spokesman Musab al-Berim saying the group’s priority is to “respond to the crime and confront the Israeli aggression”.

Seeking to keep the outburst under control, the Israeli military has restricted its operations, and nearly all the Gaza casualties so far have been members of the militant group.

Israel’s new Defense Minister said Israel wouldn’t hesitate to carry out additional targetted killings against those who threaten it.

“Whoever plans to harm us during the day, will never be safe to make it through the night,” he said after taking office on Tuesday. Netanyahu appointed him to fortify his hard-line political base as he clings to office after two inconclusive elections. Bennett has long advocated tougher action against Palestinian militants but wasn’t part of the plans to strike Abu el-Atta.

No Israeli deaths have been caused by the rockets attacks, mostly thanks to Israel’s Iron Dome defence system, which the military said intercepted some 90 per cent of the projectiles. A few homes suffered direct strikes, though, and there was a near miss on a major highway, where a rocket crashed down just after a vehicle had passed.

In Gaza, 38-year-old brigade commander Khaled Faraj was killed early yesterday along with another militant from the group’s Quds radio network. Four others were killed in an airstrike, including a father and two sons, and two others were targetted later. Their identities were unclear.