JERUSALEM — Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired more than 70 rockets and mortar shells into Israel on Tuesday, the Israeli military said, as tensions escalated amid weeks of lethal protests and tit-for-tat cross-border attacks.
Israel’s military reported that most of the projectiles were downed by its Iron Dome defense system. Later in the day, Israel reported that seven people were injured by the incoming fire, three of them soldiers. One of the mortars in the first round of fire early Tuesday struck the yard of a kindergarten, drawing angry responses from Israeli leaders, although no children were in the preschool at the time.
Within hours, Israel’s military responded with airstrikes on sites across Gaza. Israel said the targets were military training bases belonging to both Hamas, the militant Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another militant group that Israel said was responsible for Tuesday’s salvo.
The sound of sirens and reports of Iron Dome taking down mortars from the skies over southern Israel continued throughout the day.
“The army will respond with great force to these attacks. Israel will exact a heavy price from anyone who tries to attack it, and we view Hamas as responsible for preventing such attacks against us,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a speech. He was being briefed on the security situation.
Hamas and the Islamic Jihad later issued a joint statement taking responsibility for the rocket attacks and suggested they had no intention of calming down the situation.
“We conduct this battle with the Zionist enemy in accordance with the interest of the Palestinian people,” wrote the two groups in a statement. “We will not allow the enemy to impose new equations by shedding the blood of our people and warn them against continuing.”
On Sunday, Israeli forces killed three Islamic Jihad militants in retaliation for an explosive device planted along the Gaza border fence. The extremist Palestinian faction promised revenge for that attack.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli army spokesman, said the barrage on Tuesday was the “largest amount of rockets and mortars fired at Israel since 2014.” He said some of the mortars were Iranian-made.
“This is something we cannot tolerate,” said Conricus. “Hamas is turning the fence into an active combat zone, and we cannot tolerate attacks on Israeli civilians and military targets.”
Conricus said militant factions in Gaza had been enabled by Hamas over the past few days to place explosive devices along the border and shoot at Israeli troops.
In response to Tuesday’s escalation, he said, the military hit military targets in Gaza and destroyed an additional tunnel built to attack Israel. Conricus said the tunnel was unusual in that it snaked under Gaza’s southern border into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and then made a U-turn back into Israel. He said it was the 10th tunnel discovered and destroyed by Israel since October.
Residents of southern Israeli communities, who were ushered in and out of bomb shelters throughout the day, also told local media that the latest round of fire was the biggest they had seen since the 2014 summer war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
Amir Peretz, the former Israeli defense minister who initiated the Iron Dome system, told Israel Army Radio that it was a “sharp escalation.” Peretz, who resides in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, said it was the most serious attack on Israel since 2014.
Itamar Ya’ar, former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council, said it was unlikely the latest escalation would lead to another war, mainly because neither side is interested in such a confrontation, but that “of course, things could change.”
Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a professor of political science at Azhar University, said that though “there was still not declaration of war, the possibility existed.”
Tensions have been soaring between Israel and Gaza for the past few months. Residents of the coastal enclave, which has been under land and sea blockade by Israel and Egypt since Hamas wrested power over the strip more than a decade ago, have been holding weekly demonstrations at the Israeli border fence. They are demanding a right to return to land that now sits inside Israel and expressing frustration over a growing humanitarian crisis in what they describe as an open-air prison.
Earlier this month, on just one day of the protests, Israeli forces killed more than 60 Gazans, local health officials said. Thousands of people were also injured by Israeli snipers.
On Tuesday, a fleet of about 65 boats set sail from Gaza, attempting to break through Israel’s sea blockade to take some of those injured in the demonstrations abroad for medical treatment. Israel has not granted permits to all of the injured to cross into the other Palestinian territory on the West Bank for treatment. Hospitals in Gaza say they cannot cope with the high number of people who need medical care.
While most of the vessels returned to Gaza after reaching the three-mile restricted zone, one of the boats planned to sail on to Cyprus. Local media reported that by midday, the boat had gone nine nautical miles and was being accompanied by four Israeli warships.
The Israeli army later said it had intercepted the Gaza boat and that it was being redirected to the Israeli port of Ashdod. It said 17 Palestinians were on board and that the boat was “apprehended . . . without exceptional events.”
Khaled al-Batsh, a senior Islamic Jihad figure and the head of the protest committee, said the goal was to “make the world pay attention to the 2 million people living in Gaza and who deserve a better life.”
Balousha reported from Gaza City.