Israeli fighter jets struck dozens of sites across the Gaza Strip early on Saturday as fighters fired about 30 rockets into Israel, in the heaviest exchange of fire in several weeks.
The fighting and bloodshed complicated the mission of Egyptian mediators, who have intensified shuttle diplomacy to achieve calm and prevent a full-blown conflict between Hamas and Israel.
The Israeli military said it had struck about 80 sites across Gaza by early Saturday morning, including a security headquarters building. Air raid sirens sounded throughout the night in southern Israel, with firing some 30 rockets, the military said.
It said about 10 rockets were intercepted by its Iron Dome rocket defence system, two landed prematurely in Gaza and the rest fell in open areas. Israel’s military chief, General Gadi Eisenkot, convened an emergency meeting of top security officials, the army added, without elaborating.
There was no word on injuries as a result of the air attacks.
Islamic Jihad, a smaller group, implicitly claimed responsibility for the rocket fire. It issued a statement saying that it normally exercises restraint, but it “can no longer stand idle before the continued killing of innocents and bloodshed by the Israeli occupation”.
It was not immediately clear whether Islamic Jihad, which sometimes acts independently of Hamas, had coordinated the rocket fire with Hamas. But Israel holds Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007, responsible for all fire emanating from the territory.
The sides have fought three wars over the past decade, and Israel and Egypt have maintained a stifling blockade on the territory. The weekly protests along the Israeli border have been aimed in large part at breaking the blockade, which has devastated the Gaza economy.
On Friday, thousands of Palestinians gathered at five locations along the boundary, burning tires and throwing stones and firebombs at Israeli troops who responded with tear gas and live fire.
Three of the dead were reported in Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Witnesses said that dozens of protesters approached the fence there.
In northern Gaza, a 27-year-old man died after being shot in the head, the ministry said. It added that 170 other protesters sustained various injuries.
On Wednesday, Egyptian intelligence officials met representatives of Palestinian factions in Gaza. Loay Qarouti of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command said the mediators asked them “to protect the lives of protesters and minimise losses among them”.
Egypt wants to restore calm in order to pursue the broader goal of Palestinian reconciliation between Hamas and the West Bank-based administration of President Mahmoud Abbas. The internationally recognised Abbas lost control of Gaza in the 2007 takeover.
But Hamas maintains it wants a full lifting of a crippling blockade Israel and Egypt imposed on Gaza to isolate the movement.
The blockade has made it increasingly difficult for Hamas to govern. Widespread desperation among Gaza’s 2 million residents – who get only a few hours of electricity a day and undrinkable tap water, in addition to suffering from soaring joblessness and limited freedom of travel – fuels their participation in the protests.
Since the marches began six months ago, at least 210 Palestinians present or taking part in the protests have been killed and more than 18,000 were wounded.
Israel has come under heavy international criticism for what many see as excessive use of force and the large number of unarmed people who have been shot.
In the West Bank, a 33-year-old Palestinian man was killed and nine others wounded by live rounds, one in critical conditions, as the Israeli forces confronted stone throwers in a village near Ramallah city, doctors said.