Death toll rises in Gaza fighting as Israeli PM orders 'massive strikes' against Hamas

06 May 2019

Rockets and missiles fired from Gaza killed four civilians in Israel while Israeli strikes killed 19 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, in surging cross-border fighting on Sunday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he ordered the military to continue "massive strikes" against Gaza's ruling Hamas group and Islamic Jihad in the most serious border clashes since a spate of fighting in November.

Israel's military said more than 600 rockets and other projectiles — over 150 of them intercepted by its Iron Dome anti-missile system — had been fired at southern Israeli cities and villages since Friday.

It said it attacked more than 260 targets belonging to Gaza militant groups.

Gaza officials said Israeli air strikes and artillery fire had killed 27 Palestinians, including 14 civilians, since Friday.

Israeli bombings in Gaza destroyed four multi-storey structures.

Witnesses said the Israeli military had warned people inside to evacuate from the buildings before they were hit, alleging they housed Hamas security facilities.

Saeed Al-Nakhala, owner of a clothing store in one of the buildings, said he had no time to save his merchandise.

"I was together with my son in the shop, there was a big noise and then another and people started to run. We left everything behind and escaped," he said.

Israeli civilians killed

A rocket that hit a house in Ashkelon on Sunday killed a 58-year-old Israeli man, police said.

He was the first such Israeli civilian fatality since the seven-week Gaza war in 2014.

Another rocket strike killed a factory worker in Ashkelon, a hospital official said.

The military said an Israeli civilian was killed near the border by an anti-tank missile fired at his car from Gaza, and another died when a rocket struck the city of Ashdod.

In Gaza, militant groups identified eight fighters killed in Israeli strikes, while medical officials said that nine civilians also died, including a couple and their baby daughter.

Hamas commander killed

In what it said was a targeted attack, Israel's military killed Hamas commander Hamed Ahmed al-Khodary.

Israel said he was responsible for transferring funds from Iran to armed factions in Gaza. Hamas confirmed al-Khodary had been killed.

The attack on his car was the first such killing by Israel of a top militant since the war five years ago.

Israel had suspended what Palestinians call an assassination policy in an attempt to lower tensions.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh issued a statement late on Sunday saying his group was not seeking a broader conflict and held out the possibility of a ceasefire, though sirens warning of rocket fire continued to sound in Israeli cities into the night.

Explosions escalate as Ramadan approaches

Sirens and explosions reverberated on both sides of the frontier on Sunday (local time), fraying nerves and keeping schools closed.

The latest round of violence began two days ago when an Islamic Jihad sniper fired at Israeli troops, wounding two soldiers, according to the Israeli military.

Islamic Jihad accused Israel of delaying implementation of previous understandings brokered by Egypt in an effort to end violence and ease blockaded Gaza's economic hardship.

The escalating violence comes at a sensitive time for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Israel's independence day celebrations begin on Wednesday, and in two weeks Israel is also hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv, the target of a Gaza rocket attack in March.

For residents in Gaza, the escalation comes as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins in the territory.

It is traditionally a time for prayer, family feasts to break a daylight fast and shopping.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the firing of rockets into Israel and urged all parties to "exercise maximum restraint".

A UN envoy said it was working with Egypt to try to end the fighting.

Some two million Palestinians live in Gaza, the economy of which has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas's West Bank-based rival.

Israel says its blockade is necessary to stop weapons reaching Hamas, with which it has fought three wars since the group seized control of Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its settlers and troops from the area.