JERUSALEM — Attempts to quell the months-long uptick in violence along the Gaza Strip border appeared more elusive than ever Wednesday as Israeli military jets pounded targets in the Palestinian enclave in response to rocket fire by militants that ripped through a home in the Israeli city of Beersheba.
The tit-for-tat exchange intensified already high tensions between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamist group that rules Gaza, even as senior Egyptian officials were attempting to increase mediation efforts.
Amid the spike in hostilities, a delegation led by Egyptian Intelligence Director Abbas Kamel that had been scheduled to arrive in Gaza on Thursday morning postponed the trip. A senior Hamas official said it would probably be rescheduled for next week.
Nickolay Mladenov, the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, called the developments “a dangerous escalation.”
“Unfortunately, they fit a pattern of provocations that seek to bring Israel and Gaza into another deadly conflict and confrontation,” he said.
Mladenov called on both sides to do “everything possible to avoid that confrontation.” A war would be “devastating for the people of Gaza and for the Israelis who live across the border,” he said.
Hamas and other Gaza militant groups denied firing the rocket. In their statement, they pointed to a smaller militant faction that they said was attempting to scuttle the Egyptian efforts.
Israel, in keeping with its long-standing approach to Gaza, said it held Hamas responsible. More than a dozen Israelis were injured when the rocket destroyed the second floor of a family home. In Gaza, the Israeli strikes injured three people and killed a militant.
Among the sites hit by the Israeli military was a terror tunnel crossing into Israel — the second such tunnel to be destroyed in as many weeks — several tunnel digging sites, a factory storing components used for tunnel building and another for the manufacturing of aerial weaponry, the army said in a statement.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the Israeli army, said at a press briefing that the rocket fired was a “midrange, locally produced rocket possessed only by two groups in Gaza, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.”
“From our point of view,” he said, “Hamas bears full responsibility for this attack, creating an environment for terror and violence along the security fence, as we have seen, for the past few months.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was briefed Wednesday by senior military officials in southern Israel, called the rocket attack “severe.”
“As I said earlier this week, if attacks do not stop, we will stop them,” he said.
Growing voices within Israel’s leadership have been calling for a stronger response to ongoing weekly protests along the Gaza border fence.
On Tuesday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Israel was “no longer prepared to accept the level of violence we see week after week.”
“We have exhausted all the options, all the possibilities, and now the time has come to make decisions,” he said.
Israel’s security cabinet met Wednesday to discuss the situation.
Tensions between the two sides have been high in recent months as thousands of Gaza residents continue to protest along the border fence. The protests, which serve as an outlet to express frustration at the ever-deteriorating humanitarian conditions for the strip’s 2 million residents and the decade-long land, sea and air blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt, have turned lethal. According to Gaza’s Health Ministry, close to 200 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire over six months of protests.
Israel views the protests as riots and says its response is a justified defense of Israeli civilians living in the Gaza periphery. It has accused Hamas of using the mass protests as a cover to infiltrate into Israel and carry out attacks.
On Friday, Gaza’s Health Ministry reported that seven Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces. A statement from the Israeli military, also released Friday, said a large number of protesters who breached the border fence and entered Israel were killed.
Another Palestinian was killed Monday by Israeli forces at the border fence.
Hazem Balousha reported from Gaza City.