Israeli forces unleashed a wave of strikes across the Gaza Strip Friday after saying troops came under fire, killing three Hamas members as a fresh escalation heightened fears of wider conflict.
Fireballs exploded into the sky over the Palestinian enclave as the UN urged all sides to step “back from the brink” of war after months of tensions.
A fourth Palestinian was also shot dead during protests along the frontier with Israel, Gaza’s health ministry said.
United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov said “everyone in Gaza needs to step back from the brink. Not next week. Not tomorrow. Right NOW!”
“Those who want to provoke Palestinians and Israelis into another war must not succeed,” he wrote on Twitter.
An Israeli army statement said shots were fired at troops during renewed protests along the Gaza-Israel frontier and “in response… aircraft and tanks targeted military targets throughout the Gaza Strip.”
It did not say if any Israeli soldiers were hurt in the shooting.
Two Palestinians were killed in a strike east of Khan Yunis in southern Gaza and one more near Rafah, the enclave’s health ministry said.
The military wing of Islamist group Hamas named the three men as Shaban abu Khatar, Mohammed abu Farhana and Mahmoud Qushta, saying they were fighters.
Israel’s military said its aircraft and tanks had targeted “eight military posts” belonging to Hamas.
It said jets were conducting strikes in “various locations” as part of a “wide-scale attack”.
“Hamas chose to escalate the security situation and will bear the consequences for its actions,” the military warned.
Air strikes were continuing into the evening, with a number of explosions in different parts of Gaza, AFP correspondents said.
Gaza’s health ministry said that a fourth man named as Mohammed Badwan was later shot dead by Israeli forces during protests along the border.
Israeli media reported Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was receiving an emergency briefing from the army on the situation.
Last weekend saw the most severe exchange of fire between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza since a 2014 war, raising worries of another round of conflict.
Israel hit dozens of sites it said belonged to militants in the Gaza Strip in Saturday’s strikes, killing two Palestinian teenagers.
The same day, around 200 rockets and mortars were fired at Israel from Gaza and four Israelis were wounded when a rocket hit a house in the nearby Israeli city of Sderot.
Since protests broke out on March 30, at least 149 Palestinians have been killed.
Most were shot during demonstrations and clashes along the border, but others were killed in air strikes or by tank fire. No Israelis have been killed.
For more than a week, Israel has been hardening its response to kites and incendiary balloons launched from Gaza, which authorities say have set ablaze more than 2,600 hectares on Israeli territory.
In recent days, the Israeli army has opened fire at groups launching such devices.
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman has raised the threat of a large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip if Hamas does not stop the kites and balloons being launched.
Israeli television this week broadcast footage of army training manoeuvres for an incursion into the Gaza Strip.
Netanyahu also conducted a tour along the border region for the first time since the start of the clashes.
Government officials such as Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan have called for systematic attacks on kite launchers.
Israel has also further tightened its blockade of Gaza by closing the only goods crossing, suspending oil and gas deliveries. AFP