JERUSALEM — Fighting between Israel and Gaza escalated on Sunday as three Israeli civilians were killed in Palestinian rocket and missile attacks and Israeli forces began to take aim at individual Gaza militants, killing at least seven.
The three Israelis killed were the first civilians to die in clashes with Gaza since the two sides fought a brief war in the summer of 2014. Gaza health officials said 15 people had been killed since Friday, though Israel denied responsibility for two of those deaths.
One Palestinian rocket struck an Israeli cement factory in the southern city of Ashkelon, killing a Bedouin worker there. A woman was killed near Or Haner, a tiny kibbutz two miles from the Gaza border, when the truck she was driving in was hit by an anti-tank missile fired from Gaza. A third Israeli was killed in the early morning when he left his safe room for a cigarette break, his brother said.
Israel responded first by destroying what it said were the homes of several Palestinian militant commanders and then by following through on a longstanding threat — one heard more frequently in recent days from hawkish politicians — to start killing individual fighters in targeted attacks.
An airstrike that destroyed a car in Gaza City killed a man who the Israeli military said had been responsible for large transfers of cash from Iran to Hamas, the militant Islamic group that rules the territory, and to a rival faction in Gaza, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Israel said the man, Ahmad Hamed Al-Khudary, 34, owned a money exchange company that it designated a terrorist organization last June.
Israelis stand outside their building after it was hit by a rocket fired from Gaza in the costal city of Ashkelon on Sunday.CreditTsafrir Abayov/Associated Press
Asked why Israel had resumed its long-dormant tactic of assassination, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said, “It’s important for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to understand the severity of the situation.”
Two other fighters with Palestinian Islamic Jihad were killed in an airstrike on the Al Buraij refugee camp early Sunday, the group said.
The attacks from Gaza mostly hit targets in southern Israel with no military value, including a building housing a kindergarten in the town of Sderot and the oncology department at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon. An army post in the community of Kissufim was hit by a mortar that struck its synagogue, lightly wounding two soldiers.
More than 100 Israelis were treated at Barzilai for injuries in the day’s attacks, hospital officials said.
With rockets and mortars setting off sirens across southern Israel every few minutes — a two-day total of 600 launches, the army said — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered what he called “massive strikes,” and the military used tanks, artillery, jets, attack helicopters and drones.
An armored brigade and the Golani infantry brigade were deployed to the Gaza frontier to be available for a possible ground incursion, and another infantry brigade was put on standby.
Israel also pushed back aggressively on Sunday against Palestinian accusations that it had killed a pregnant Gaza woman and her young daughter in the first day of fighting on Saturday. An Army spokesmen insisted that the two were killed by a misfired Palestinian rocket, not by Israeli munitions, though Gaza officials continued to accuse Israel of responsibility for what they called a war crime.
The latest round of violence began much like several others since last summer.
Israel and Gaza have been locked what appeared to be a cycle of clashes quickly followed by de-escalations, with Egyptian-brokered talks repeatedly achieving a temporary cooling off along the border.
In November, there appeared to be a breakthrough. Israel promised to ameliorate conditions in Gaza by allowing in cash supplied by Qatar, fuel and humanitarian aid despite its blockade, expanding the zone in the Mediterranean in which it would allow Gaza fishermen to operate, and easing the movement of people in and out of the impoverished seaside territory. Hamas agreed in return to restrain protests along its frontier with Israel that have often devolved into violence.
But a truce has never taken hold, and indeed the cease-fires have only lasted a number of weeks.
Some resumptions of violence have been unforeseeable. In October, a freak of nature — a lightning strike — was said to have caused a rocket to be launched at Israel. In November, an Israeli undercover team was discovered inside Gaza, setting off a firefight as it made its escape and then two days of rocket attacks and airstrikes. And a rocket attack in mid-March was said to be a result of “human error” rather than Hamas policy.
But Israel has also accused Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, its more radical ally, of resorting to violence for political advantage. In late March, two weeks before Israel’s parliamentary elections, a rocket hit a house in northeast Tel Aviv and caused Mr. Netanyahu to cut short a trip to Washington.
Now, with Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day celebrations coming this week, and a stream of international singers arriving to compete in the Eurovision song contest in Tel Aviv later this month, the Gaza militant groups may have gambled that Mr. Netanyahu would pay an even higher price for quiet in the short term.
“Both of them believe that only pressure and force will force Israel to ease the restrictions of the blockade,” said Tareq Baconi, an analyst with International Crisis Group. “And Israel has done nothing but reinforce that lesson.”
Indeed, the two Gaza factions have accused Israel of forgetting its promises as soon as violence gives way to calm.
“Hamas agreed to restrain the protests in return for concessions,” Mr. Baconi said. “Those haven’t materialized.”
Omar Shaban, an economist who runs PalThink for Strategic Studies, a Gaza think tank, said that some of the recriminations between Israel and Gaza officials over measures meant to ease the deprivations in Gaza had been missing the point.
“There’s no shortage of food in Gaza, but people don’t have purchasing power because there are no jobs,” he said. “There are some demands by the political factions that cannot be implemented: If you open the crossings while people don’t have cash for the private sector to operate, it’s pointless. Gaza needs a package of assistance.”
On the Israeli side, even some critics of Mr. Netanyahu said that the cycle of violence with Gaza was only strengthening his hand politically.
“His view — which, incidentally, is logical — is that the division between Gaza and the West Bank, which stems from the chronic conflict between Hamas and Fatah, weakens the national Palestinian movement and is worth the headache inherent in dealing with two semi-functional political entities,” Shimrit Meir, an Israeli analyst of Palestinian politics, wrote in the daily Yediot Ahronot.
The two Palestinian territories, Gaza and the West Bank, are governed by the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah.
In Ashkelon, a concrete factory that makes large pipes for underground sewers and other equipment for the army was struck by a rocket around 1 p.m. on Sunday. A worker there who refused to give his name said he was standing between two of the workers who were hit by the rocket when the siren went off. He ran for shelter, but the others either didn’t try or didn’t make it.
“There weren’t many seconds,” he said.
With rockets still arcing toward Israel, and Iron Dome antimissile systems knocking out a good number of them but not all, the family of Moshe Agadi, 58, who was killed in Ashkelon at around 2 a.m., asked the public to avoid his 4 p.m. funeral. They feared that those attending could be subjected to another strike from Gaza.
But hundreds of Israelis packed the funeral hall anyway, and then streamed outside for Mr. Agadi’s burial, as home front soldiers wearing orange berets passed out instructions on what to do if the cemetery came under attack.
“We came to honor him, and to show that we’re not afraid of them,” said Tzipi Ben-David, 56, as distant blasts could be heard in the direction of Gaza. “Look how many came, even with this situation.”
At Mr. Agadi’s residence, a golden-painted suburban dream house, large shrapnel divots in the exterior wall, a felled tree and grapefruits strewn on the ground all testified to the weapon that had killed him.
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