ISRAELI warplanes and tanks hammered Gaza yesterday and early today, killing 11 people in the deadliest day of violence in the strip since the end of the Gaza war two years ago.
A truce declared by Palestinian armed groups unravelled even before it could take hold as they fired dozens of mortar rounds and rockets into southern Israel.
The latest deaths came after 24 hours of deadly tit-for-tat violence that began on Thursday when Hamas militants fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli school bus, critically wounding a teenager and lightly injuring the driver.
“The attack on a school bus yesterday crossed the line … Whoever tries to hurt and murder children, his blood will be on his own head,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in Prague yesterday before heading home.
Since the bus attack, Israel has launched more than 20 raids on targets across the enclave. By early today, it had killed 16 Gazans — including a 10-year-old boy, five Hamas militants and one policeman. At least 57 Palestinians were wounded, 12 of them seriously, medics said.
The toll of 11 dead made this the deadliest day in Gaza since the end of Operation Cast Lead, the devastating 22-day offensive Israel launched in December 2008 that claimed the lives of some 1,400 Palestinians — more than half of them civilians — and 13 Israelis, including 10 soldiers.
Following the strikes, the self-declared truce called by Hamas appeared meaningless, with both Hamas and Islamic Jihad claiming mortar and rocket attacks on Israel on Friday.
“Our holy warriors are ready to react to the Zionist aggression and respond to any foolish acts committed by the occupation with everything they have,” said a statement from Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades.
A statement on the group’s website also said the “resistance” had fired several Grad rockets at Ashkelon, and that smoke was rising from the Israeli city.
However, the Israeli defence ministry said its Iron Dome anti-missile system had intercepted three of the rockets, while a fourth struck open ground without causing damage.
Two of yesterday’s deadliest strikes took place around the southern city of Khan Yunis, with one killing two Hamas militants just east of the city.
A second hit a group of civilians slightly farther north, killing a man in his 50s and a woman and her 21-year-old daughter, medics said.
Four others were wounded in that raid, including an 18-year-old girl who was in serious condition.
The Israeli military said it had targeted “two terrorist squads at the launch sites,” and expressed regret for harming civilian bystanders.
However, a military statement blamed Hamas for choosing “to operate from within its civilian population, using it as a human shield.”
Another missile strike killed one Hamas militant near the northern town of Beit Lahiya, while a second militant died later of his wounds, Hamas said. Witnesses had reported seeing several men trying to fire a rocket from the area.
As dusk fell, a shell slammed into a cemetery in the Shejaiya neighbourhood of Gaza City, killing two people, one of them a 10-year-old boy, and wounding 10 others, some of them also children, medics said.
The military had no immediate comment.
Two Palestinians were killed and one was seriously wounded early Saturday in an Israeli air raid on Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip, Palestinian medics said.
The three unidentified Palestinians were travelling in a car that was targeted by Israeli aircraft, the medics and witnesses said.
Three other Israeli raids hit a smuggling tunnel near Rafah, the Jabaliya refugee camp in the north of the Gaza Strip and a car east of Gaza City, without claiming any victims, the sources said.
In addition to the anti-tank missile, militants on Thursday lobbed more than 50 mortar rounds at Israel, one of which hit a house.
More than 30 more were fired yesterday, police and media reports said.
The bus attack was the first time an anti-tank missile had hit a civilian target in Israel, and was seen by the Jewish state as a worrying escalation.
Hamas said the attack was in revenge for the killing of three of its operatives in an April 2 air strike. The army said the strike targeted militants planning to kidnap Israelis from Sinai during the upcoming Passover holiday.
The bus attack drew strong condemnation from Washington, Europe and the United Nations. As the dust settled after a day of attacks and counter strikes, both sides were mulling their options, aware that the escalating violence could rapidly deteriorate into all-out war. In Cairo, up to 2000 protesters gathered outside the Israeli embassy to protest the strikes.
The mostly youthful crowd waved Palestinian and Egyptian flags and chanted: “The people demand the liberation of Palestine.”