In the Israeli airstrikes that followed, three Palestinians were killed, including a 23-year-old pregnant woman and her 18-month-old daughter, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza.
“She was killed for nothing! What was the guilt of the baby?” asked Said Khamash, a cousin of the woman’s husband, who was injured in the airstrike, which left a gaping hole in the ceiling of their modest home in the Wadi al-Salqa area of central Gaza.
The Israeli military said it struck only military targets, including production sites for weapons and tunnels. Also killed was a fighter with Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza.
The escalation, one of the most intense exchanges of fire since the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, came in the middle of Egyptian-brokered talks in Cairo over a cease-fire between the two sides after repeated outbreaks of violence in recent months.
Diplomatic efforts on Thursday shifted their focus to achieving an immediate de-escalation. But despite the attempts to reach a truce, fighting continued into the evening. Unconfirmed reports that one had been reached late Thursday were denied by an Israeli official in local media.
Earlier in the evening, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called an emergency meeting of his security cabinet. Afterward, it issued a statement saying the military had been directed “to continue taking strong action against the terrorist elements.”
Similar, though shorter, exchanges of fire have occurred several times in recent weeks, but residents of both Gaza and nearby Israeli communities said the latest fighting, which lasted more than 24 hours, reached a new level of ferocity.
“We only slept an hour,” said Naomi Zolberg, 34, a resident of the Israeli city of Sderot who said four projectiles hit very close to her home on Wednesday evening as she was inside with two of her children. “People were freaking out. It is not normal to live like this, under the will of the other side.”
Some analysts suggested that Hamas had turned up the violence to demonstrate its strength during negotiations, but they warned that such muscle-flexing could lead to a new war even if neither side wants a full-fledged conflict.
“As we approach a potential agreement, it’s extremely important for Hamas to deliver the message that ‘we are not going there because we are weak,’ ” said Yossi Kuperwasser, a retired brigadier general and the former director general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs. Israel in turn needs to send the message that there’s a “price to pay,” he said.
The flare-up, however, will distract from finding a more lasting solution to Gaza’s long-term economic problems, he said.
The 140-square-mile strip, under partial blockade by Israel for more than a decade, suffers from chronic unemployment and a lack of infrastructure and services. Other discussions in Cairo had focused on bringing about investment and employment and restoring Palestinian Authority control over the territory. Egypt has also only sporadically opened its border with Gaza over the past decade.
The White House has said that easing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is one of its priorities. The enclave’s misery results in instability, which is a major security concern for Israel.
The United Nations representative to the peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, who has attempted to help mediate a cease-fire, said he was “deeply alarmed” by the latest events and warned that they risk becoming a “conflict that nobody wants.”
“If the current escalation . . . is not contained immediately, the situation can rapidly deteriorate with devastating consequences for all people,” he said in a statement.
As part of a cease-fire deal, Israel is insisting that Hamas stop sending incendiary kites and balloons over the border, Israeli and Palestinian officials say.
Hamas and Israel have also opened channels for indirect talks on prisoner exchanges. Those have hit a stumbling block as Hamas insists the release include all prisoners who were part of a 2011 prisoner exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit but have since been rearrested, according to Palestinian officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
After a sleepless night for residents of Gaza and nearby Israeli communities on Wednesday, there was little respite Thursday morning. Israeli sirens continued to blare, warning of incoming rockets, while airstrikes hit more targets in Gaza, even after Palestinian factions declared that the round of violence was over.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another Gaza militant group, said they had targeted Israeli communities in response to Israel’s “aggression.”
On Tuesday, Israeli tank fire killed two members of Hamas’s military wing. Israel said the militants had fired on Israeli troops near the border, but Hamas said they were taking part in a drill. On Wednesday the Israeli military said it had observed Hamas evacuating fighters from military posts, a sign of an impending operation by the group. A few hours later the rocket fire began.
Public pressure in Israel to take more-decisive military action is building. Alon Davidi, the mayor of Sderot, said it’s time for “action.”
“We have to hit the terrorists hard and bring back our routine to our own lives,” he said, addressing ministers in the security cabinet, the Times of Israel reported. “For our part, we are ready and willing to give the army and decision-makers the time and space they need to return quiet to this region.”
An Israeli military spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, said that reinforcements had been sent to the area and that the military was prepared for various “eventualities.”
But many on both sides are hoping it won’t come to another war. “We need an end to this,” said Salwa Masry, 44, a mother of five who lives west of Gaza City. “I don’t know how, whether through reconciliation or a deal with Israel or Egypt. We need an end.”
Balousha reported from Gaza City.