Militants in Gaza Fire Hundreds of Rockets Into Israel, After Airstrikes

Militants in Gaza fired more than 400 rockets toward Israel on Wednesday, reaching as far north as the sky above the suburbs of Tel Aviv, as Israel carried out dozens of airstrikes against what it described as rocket-launching sites and military compounds operated by the Islamic Jihad militant group in the Palestinian coastal enclave.

The flare-up came after an attack by Israel on Islamic Jihad on Tuesday killed three of the group’s top commanders, along with 10 civilians, four of them children, Palestinian officials said. The killings left both Israelis and Palestinians bracing for an escalation in cross-border attacks at a time when violence in the region has been surging.

Less than 48 hours after Israel’s opening attack set off its third confrontation with Islamic Jihad in 10 months, intensive mediation efforts for a cease-fire were underway.

Hamas, the larger militant group that controls Gaza, said Wednesday afternoon that its political chief, Ismail Haniya, had received phone calls from Egyptian, Qatari and United Nations officials. Hours later, Islamic Jihad — which is fully backed by Iran and which Israel, the United States and many other Western countries classify as a terrorist organization — was holding out for conditions that Israel was unlikely to accept, including a halt to targeted assassinations.

Mohammad Al Hindi, a senior Islamic Jihad official, said in a statement that Israeli noncompliance with that demand was hindering a cease-fire agreement, but he added, “The efforts are still going on.”

After Israel’s initial assault on Tuesday, at least eight more Palestinians were killed in subsequent Israeli strikes on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza. The military wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a small, armed faction involved in the rocket fire, claimed four of the dead as its members. The Israeli military identified two others as operatives of Islamic Jihad’s anti-tank missile squad. Gaza’s Health Ministry said at least 64 Palestinians had been injured in all.

There were no immediate reports of casualties on the Israeli side.

The Israeli military said its strikes on Wednesday were mainly defensive ones aimed at thwarting imminent attacks by Islamic Jihad. Later, as the rocket fire from Gaza continued, Israel broadened its targets in Gaza to include what it described as compounds used to manufacture and store weapons, and one used by the Islamic Jihad’s naval forces. It also struck several houses after warning inhabitants to leave, according to local Palestinian news reports.

The military said it had struck more than 40 launching sites for rockets and mortar shells across the Gaza Strip on Wednesday afternoon.

Most of the rocket barrages were aimed at areas in southern Israel close to the border with Gaza, and many of those that appeared headed for Israeli population centers were intercepted by Israel’s air defenses. An empty house in the border town of Sderot suffered a direct hit, and several other houses in southern Israel were damaged by rockets that fell close by.

The Israeli military said a rocket had been intercepted over the Tel Aviv area by its David’s Sling air-defense system, designed to deal with longer-range rockets and missiles than the older Iron Dome system. It was Israel’s first successful use of David’s Sling in battlefield conditions and in  a conflict with Gaza, the military said.

On Tuesday evening, Israel struck a car in the city of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip that it said had been carrying members of an Islamic Jihad squad on their way to a launchpad with an anti-tank guided missile, resulting in two fatalities.

Officials and analysts said the question of whether Hamas would join Islamic Jihad in retaliatory action against Israel would determine the length and intensity of the current round of fighting.

The Israeli military’s chief spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said that the rockets fired on Wednesday were being launched solely by Islamic Jihad and that there was no indication that Hamas was directly involved.

Though it has stayed out of the fighting, Hamas declared solidarity with Islamic Jihad and claimed that the retaliation against Israel was a joint operation. “The operation confirmed the readiness of the resistance forces to respond to the crimes of the occupation,” Hazem Qassem, a Hamas spokesman, said in a statement.

The interests of Hamas differ from those of Islamic Jihad, since Hamas bears responsibility for the population of more than two million Palestinians in Gaza, a largely impoverished territory that operates under a strict air, land and sea blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt. Hamas has been less eager to engage in fighting with Israel over the past year, since Israel issued almost 20,000 permits for Gazans to work in Israel, where they can earn significantly more than they can in the coastal enclave.

On Tuesday and Wednesday Israel kept its border crossings with Gaza closed, preventing the passage of people or goods.

Israel seemed to be sending mixed messages about its intentions.

Admiral Hagari said the military was focusing on minimizing the imminent threat from Gaza and was not seeking further escalation but to stabilize the area.

“Israel is not interested in war,” he said. He added that Israel had achieved its objective in the first minutes of the campaign on Tuesday with the killing of the three Islamic Jihad commanders.

But in a call on Wednesday with regional council heads in southern Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “We are ready for the possibility of an expanded campaign and harsh strikes against Gaza,” according to a statement from his office.

In a televised address Wednesday night, however, Mr. Netanyahu seemed to be summing up the campaign and pointing to Israel’s achievements. “We have inflicted upon Islamic Jihad in Gaza the hardest blow in its history,” he said, adding that Israel had created a “new equation” by taking the initiative. “We will choose the time and place to attack you,” he said.

Israel’s operation against Islamic Jihad on Tuesday had taken some time to be carried out, officials said, as the military waited for the required intelligence and weather conditions. They said the decision to kill leaders of the group in Gaza was made on May 2, the day that Islamic Jihad fired more than a hundred rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel after the death in Israeli custody of a Palestinian hunger striker, Khader Adnan, who was protesting his detention. Mr. Adnan was an Islamic Jihad leader from the occupied West Bank.

Amid fears of a surge in fighting, Palestinian schools in Gaza remained shut on Wednesday, as did Israeli schools within easy range of the territory. People were stocking up on food. Thousands of Israeli residents of towns and villages along the border left their homes on Tuesday expecting Islamic Jihad or other militant groups in Gaza to retaliate for the Israeli airstrikes.

With rocket fire reaching deep into Israel on Wednesday, Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, sought government approval to extend the state of emergency he declared on Tuesday to Israeli cities and communities up to 50 miles from the border with Gaza.

The declaration severely restricts gatherings and instructs residents to remain close to safe rooms and bomb shelters.

Iyad Abuheweila contributed reporting from Gaza City, Hiba Yazbek from Jerusalem and Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel.

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