JERUSALEM - Israeli aircraft struck at Palestinian militants in Gaza on Saturday who responded with a volley of rockets which rained on southern Israeli towns, Israeli and Palestinian officials said. Palestinian officials said seven militants were killed, while on the Israeli side one civilian was killed and four others were wounded.
Exchanges of fire are common between southern Israel and the Gaza strip controlled by the militant Hamas group, but this is the worst one in months.
Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Adham Abu Salmia said that seven people were killed and 15 wounded in two separate attacks on militant targets.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said one Israeli civilian was killed and four others wounded when Palestinian rockets exploded in residential areas in southern Israel.
An Israeli military spokesman confirmed a total of three strikes in Gaza, saying the military hit Palestinian militants from the Islamic Jihad, one of several groups in Gaza which fires rockets into southern Israel. The spokesman said that the first attack specifically targeted a cell responsible for a Wednesday rocket attack that exploded deep inside Israel. That attack had caused no casualties.
The military "will not tolerate any attempt to harm Israeli civilians," the spokesman said. He spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with military protocols.
The Israeli military released video footage taken from a military drone Saturday afternoon that shows Palestinians unloading rockets from a truck and preparing them for firing at Israel. The strike took place shortly afterward.
Abu Salmia, the Gaza health official, said five people had been killed and 11 wounded in the first attack. Islamic Jihad spokesman Abu Ahmed confirmed that one of its local field commanders, Ahmed Sheikh Khalil, was among the dead. He said Khalil was one of the group's chief bomb makers. "Today it was a great loss for us in the Islamic Jihad," he said. "The size of our retaliation will equal our loss," it said in a text message sent to reporters.
"Our response shall be in the depths of the Zionist entity," it said in reference to the Israeli heartland.
After the first airstrike, militants in Gaza fired over 20 rockets at southern Israel, Rosenfeld said.
Islamic Jihad took responsibility for firing the rockets in a text message to reporters, and released photos of the rockets being launched from the backs of pickup trucks. The group said this is the first time they are using this system as opposed to firing them from launchers on the ground.
One rocket hit an apartment building in the southern city of Ashkelon and injured a 50 year-old Israeli who later died of his wounds, Rosenfeld said. Another exploded outside an apartment building in nearby Ashdod, injuring one person. Israeli television showed about a dozen cars in flames outside the building.
Another Israeli sustained shrapnel wounds in the nearby town of Gan Yavneh and others in the Ashdod region were treated for shock, the Israeli military spokesman said.
Israel's Channel 2 television reported that one rocket hid a school, causing massive damage. No one was hurt because the school was closed for the Jewish Sabbath, Ashdod Mayor Yehiel Lasri said.
After the rocket barrage, Abu Salmia said that a second Israeli attack killed two people. Islamic Jihad confirmed that they were militants. Israel's military spokesman said that the second air strike had hit "terrorists that fired rockets on Israel in the evening,"
The military confirmed a third air strike, but Abu Salmia said that it hit an open area and caused no casualties.
The Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad took responsibility for multiple suicide bombings and shooting attacks against civilians in Israel during the second Palestinian intifadah, or uprising, in the first half of the last decade.
Israel and Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza, blamed each other for the flare up in violence Saturday.
"The Hamas terror organization is solely responsible for any terrorist activity emanating from the Gaza Strip," the Israeli military said.
Israel as a matter of policy holds Hamas liable for violence perpetrated by any of the different armed groups in the coastal territory.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum meanwhile said Israel is "fully responsible for all the results of this dangerous escalation."
In the winter of 2008, Israel launched a broad military offensive inside Gaza aimed at stopping almost daily Palestinian rocket fire at Israeli communities.
Since then, violence has continued sporadically along the border and Palestinians continue to launch mortars and rockets at Israel, but to a much lesser degree.
On Wednesday, militants fired a long-range Katyusha rocket that exploded near Ashdod in the south of Israel. Sirens also went off in the central Israeli city of Rehovot, which unlike many southern Israeli cities is not accustomed to rocket fire, causing panic. The Israeli military said the alarm went off because the rocket exploded in an area between the two cities.
Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said that Israeli diplomats "will protest against the indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israeli civilians to the U.N. Secretary General." He said a similar letter sent after Wednesday's attack has yet to be answered.