A pregnant Palestinian woman and her one-year-old niece have been killed in a wave of Israeli air raids on the Gaza Strip, according to Palestinian officials, shattering a month-long lull in violence in the besieged enclave.
The bombardment on Saturday came as Hamas, which rules Gaza, and the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine fired more than 200 rockets towards cities and villages in southern Israel.
At least three Palestinians, including the woman, an infant and a 22-year-old man were killed in the air raids, the health ministry in Gaza said, while 13 others were wounded.
Shrapnel from the Gaza rockets meanwhile wounded two Israelis; one of them was an 80-year-old woman.
The latest escalation comes after Israeli forces killed four Palestinians in two separate incidents on Friday. Those killed included two Hamas fighters, who died in an Israeli air raid, and two Palestinian protesters, who were shot dead near Israel’s fence with Gaza.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad responded with rocket fire on Saturday, promising a “broader and more painful” response if Israel “pursues its aggression”.
Israeli military hit back with air raids and tank fire against more than 30 targets belonging to both groups.
Explosions in Gaza City, where busy streets were packed with shoppers making preparations for the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, shook buildings and sent people fleeing for cover.
Ibtessam Abu Arar, aunt of Siba, the 14-month old infant who died in the Israeli raid, said: “The Israeli plane fired a missile near the house and the shrapnel entered the house and hit the poor baby.”
Siba was being held in the lap of her pregnant aunt Falestine Abu Arar, 37, who was also struck. She died from her wounds hours later, the health ministry said in a statement.
Earlier, it was mistakenly reported that Falestine was Siba’s mother.
The Israeli military denied responsibility for the two deaths, blaming a misfiring of a Hamas rocket.
Across the fence, sirens sent Israelis running to shelters as the blasts of rocket interceptions sounded overhead, and Jonathan Conricus, spokesman for Israeli military, said Israel was prepared to intensify its attacks.
“The rocket fire from Gaza towards Israel must stop immediately. A de-escalation of this dangerous situation is urgently needed to ensure that civilians’ lives are protected,” said Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for the EU.
“Israelis and Palestinians both have the right to live in peace, security and dignity,” she added in her statement.
Israel and Egypt have maintained a crippling blockade on Gaza since Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007. Some two million Palestinians live in the coastal enclave, whose economy has suffered years of blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts. Unemployment stands at 52 percent, according to the World Bank, and poverty is rampant.
Israel says its blockade is necessary to stop weapons reaching Hamas, with which it has fought three wars since 2007.
Following heavy fighting in late March, Israel agreed to ease the blockade in exchange for a halt to rocket fire. This included expanding a fishing zone off Gaza’s coast, increasing imports into Gaza and allowing the Gulf state of Qatar to deliver aid to the cash-strapped territory.
But Israel scaled back the fishing zone this week in response to rocket fire and shut crossings in and out of Gaza entirely on Saturday.
Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from Jerusalem, said Israel had also so far failed to facilitate “the promised extra funding from Qatar” and that “other easings of the Israeli siege have not borne fruit either”.
Mukhaimer Abu Sadda, a professor of political science at Al Azhar University in the Gaza Strip, said the onus was on Israel to implement the agreements brokered following the March fighting.
“It’s the Israeli government who has not implemented the latest understandings,” Sadda told Al Jazeera.
Hamas said on Thursday that its Gaza chief, Yeyha Sinwar, had travelled to Cairo for talks on efforts to maintain calm along the border and alleviate hardship in the enclave.
The latest outbreak of fighting, which prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to convene security chiefs, also comes days before Muslims begin Ramadan and Israelis celebrate Independence Day.
Israel is also due to host the 2019 Eurovision song contest finals in less than two weeks in Tel Aviv.
Al Jazeera’s Fawcett said the bout of conflict had erupted at a “politically sensitive time for the Israelis”.
“Perhaps the calculation is that Israel won’t ramp up this military escalation to the extent of a full conflict because of the concerns about those events and this might be a time to try to get it to follow through on what it reportedly promised at the end of the last military escalation at the beginning of April,” he said.