Militants Fire Rockets Into Israel From Gaza, Responding to Airstrikes

Militants in Gaza fired almost 300 rockets toward Israel on Wednesday afternoon, 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 squads and sites operated by the Islamic Jihad militant group in the Palestinian coastal enclave.

The flare-up in fighting came after an attack on Islamic Jihad by Israel on Tuesday that killed three of its top commanders, along with 10 civilians, four of them children, according to Palestinian officials. 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.

After Israel’s initial assault before dawn on Tuesday, at least seven more Palestinians were killed in subsequent Israeli strikes on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza. Most appeared to be militants belonging to Islamic Jihad or a smaller armed faction involved in the rocket fire.

The Israeli military said that its strikes on Wednesday were defensive ones aimed at thwarting attacks by Islamic Jihad, which Israel, the United States and many other Western countries classify as a terrorist organization. There were no immediate reports of casualties on the Israeli side as millions of Israelis were instructed to remain close to safe rooms and bomb shelters.

Most of the rocket barrages were aimed at areas of 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.

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 and vaunted Iron Dome system. It was Israel’s first successful use of David’s Sling in battlefield conditions and in the context of a conflict with Gaza, according to the military.

Amid the hostilities on Wednesday, efforts were underway by Egypt and other regional powers to broker a cease-fire in what is Israel’s third confrontation with Islamic Jihad in 10 months. Hamas, the larger militant group that controls Gaza, said that its political chief, Ismail Haniya, had been receiving phone calls from Egyptian, Qatari and United Nations officials.

Militant groups in Gaza often fire rockets from underground launchers that can be concealed in fields, orchards or built-up areas. The Israeli military uses pilotless drones and other aircraft to monitor and try to spot squads of militants as they approach the sites to set timers for the launches.

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

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. Two Palestinians were reported killed and two others injured.

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 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, referring to Israel.

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.

Israel seemed to be broadcasting 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 before dawn 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.

Amid fears of a surge in fighting, Palestinian schools in Gaza remained shuttered on Wednesday, as did Israeli schools within easy range of the territory.

Thousands of Israeli residents of towns and villages along the border left their homes on Tuesday amid concerns that Islamic Jihad or other militant groups in Gaza would 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, which severely restricts gatherings and instructs residents to remain close to safe rooms and bomb shelters, initially applied to areas within a 25-mile radius of the border.

In Gaza itself, banks, universities, some restaurants and cafes remained shut on Wednesday, and people were stocking up on food.

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.

This year has already proved to be the deadliest in more than two decades for Palestinians and Israelis. More than 110 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, according to Palestinian officials, with most of the deaths coming in clashes during raids by Israeli forces. At least 19 Israelis have been killed in attacks by Palestinians.

Israeli forces killed two more Palestinians early Wednesday in what the military and Palestinians described as an exchange of fire in the town of Qabatiya in the northern West Bank. The military said Palestinian assailants had opened fire at soldiers from a vehicle and were subsequently shot dead.

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

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