GAZA CITY: Twelve Palestinian fighters were killed and at least 20 people wounded in a series of Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip, Palestinian medics said on early Saturday.
The Israeli military said the air force launched 13 attacks on a range of targets, including a militant leader.
The Israeli raids came as Palestinians fired dozens of rockets and mortar rounds into southern Israel starting Friday morning, injuring four people, one of them seriously, Israeli military sources said.
One of the retaliatory Israeli air strikes killed the head of the Popular Resistance Committees, Zohair al-Qaisi, and fellow member Mahmud Hanani, the ultra-hardline militant group said.
The PRC threatened reprisals for Qaisi’s death, and around 45 rockets and shells were subsequently fired on southern Israel.
The Al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of Islamic Jihad, said that the Israeli air strikes also killed 10 of its members.
“Aircraft targeted two weapons manufacturing facilities and two rocket launching sites in the northern Gaza Strip, a weapons manufacturing facility in the central Gaza Strip and a terror activity site in the southern Gaza Strip,”the Israeli army said in a statement on Saturday morning.
“The targeting is in direct response to the rocket fire at Israeli communities in southern Israel,” it said.
The statement said that Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system intercepted 10 Grad rockets fired at the southern Israeli towns of Beersheva, Ashdod and Ashkelon, which have a combined population of more than half a million people.
“Aircraft targeted a terrorist in the central Gaza Strip and six additional terrorist squads who were in the final stages of preparing to fire rockets at Israel from separate locations in the northern and the central Gaza Strip,” it added.
The PRC and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed offshoot of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah movement, issued statements claiming to have fired rockets into Israel on Friday.
The official Palestinian WAFA news agency quoted a statement by the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority condemning the Israeli retaliation, saying it had created a “negative environment” that would “escalate the circle of violence in the region.”
The Israeli military said Qaisi “was among the leaders who planned, funded and directed” a deadly cross-border attack into southern Israel from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula last August.
In that attack, gunmen carried out a coordinated series of shooting ambushes on buses and cars on Route 12, which runs along the Egyptian border, 20 kilometres north of the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat.
The shootings took place over several hours, leaving eight dead and more than 25 wounded.
The army said on Saturday that it had once again closed Route 12 to traffic, “in light of situation assessments and security considerations.”
A military statement issued after the Friday night killing of Qaisi said he was also implicated in a 2008 attack in which two Israeli civilians were killed.
The statement added that both the dead men were “responsible for planning a combined terror attack that was to take place via Sinai in the coming days.”
Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, has maintained a tacit truce with Israel, but other armed Palestinian groups regularly fire rockets and mortars across the border, often sparking retaliatory air strikes.
The relatively small Popular Resistance Committees is one of the most active, and it pledged to avenge its men’s deaths.
“We are not committed to the truce; we will respond very strongly to this (Israeli) crime,” Abu Ataya, a spokesman for the PRC’s military wing, the Al-Nasser Salaheddin Brigades, told AFP.
Hamas also referred to the killings as a crime.
“The Al-Qassam Brigades mourn the martyr leader Zohair Qaisi and martyr Mahmud Hanani and confirm that their blood will not be wasted, the enemy’s crime will be a curse on him,” the group’s military wing said in a statement.
“The recent Zionist escalation is an unjustified crime, it comes as a part of the destabilisation of a stable security situation in the Gaza Strip,” the Hamas-run Gaza government’s interior ministry said in a statement.