Gaza militants, Israel exchange fire in new flare-up

Flare-up follows the killing in an Israeli air strike on Friday of two militants from Hamas, as well as two Palestinians killed by Israeli troops during protests along the Gaza fence.

GAZA CITY - Palestinian militants fired dozens of rockets into Israel on Saturday, drawing a wave of Israeli air strikes that killed one Palestinian gunman, as hostilities flared across the fence separating the blockaded Gaza Strip for a second day.

The escalation began on Friday, when two Israeli soldiers were wounded by Gaza gunfire near the fence, according to the Israeli army. An Israeli air strike killed two militants from the Islamist Hamas group that governs Gaza.

Two other Palestinians participating in weekly protests near the fence were also shot dead by Israeli forces.

On Saturday, Israel hit Gaza with air strikes and tank fire after Palestinian militants fired about 150 rockets toward Israeli cities and villages.

The Palestinian militants said these rockets were in retaliation for the killings of Palestinians by Israeli troops.

The Israeli military said its forces had carried out attacks against more than 30 targets belonging to Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group.

A small armed pro-Hamas group in Gaza, The Protectors of Al-Aqsa, said one of its men was killed in an air strike on Saturday.

The Gaza Health Ministry said six Palestinians were wounded. Residents identified two of them as militants.

The Palestinian Education Ministry said it was evacuating schools in areas under Israeli bombardment.

Across the fence, rocket sirens sent Israelis running to shelters, and the Magen David Adom ambulance service said one woman was seriously wounded by shrapnel in the city of Kiryat Gat. Many of the missiles were intercepted, the military said.

The flare-up, which prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to convene his security council, comes days before Muslims begin the holy month of 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, towards which long-range rockets were launched in mid-March.

Efforts to prevent escalation

Although Israeli air strikes in retaliation for rockets from Gaza are a frequent occurrence, Israel and Hamas have managed to avert all-out war for the past five years.

Egyptian mediators, credited with brokering a ceasefire after a Hamas rocket attack north of Tel Aviv in March triggered a burst of intense fighting, have been working to prevent any further escalation of hostilities.

Netanyahu will meet security chiefs on Saturday to discuss the situation, a source in his office said.

Hamas would "continue to respond to the crimes by the occupation and it will not allow it to shed the blood of our people," its spokesman Abdel-Latif al-Qanoua said in a statement on Saturday. He made no explicit claim for Hamas having fired the rockets.

One of the attacks was claimed by the Palestinian Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), which said it fired rockets at the Israeli city of Ashkelon.

The Islamic Jihad said in a statement that the rocket barrages were a response to Friday's events and that Israel has been delaying the implementation of previous understandings brokered by Cairo.

Hamas said on Thursday that its Gaza chief, Yeyha Sinwar, had travelled to Cairo for talks on efforts to maintain calm along the fence and alleviate hardship in the enclave.

Some 2 million Palestinians live in Gaza, 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 the group seized control of Gaza in 2007.