JERUSALEM – Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired more than 30 mortar shells in Israel on Tuesday as tensions between Israelis and Palestinians spread after weeks of deadly protests and cross-border attacks.
The Israeli military reported that most mortars crashed Tuesday morning due to the iron dome defense system and there were no reports of injuries. One of the mortars struck the courtyard of a kindergarten, drawing angry answers from Israeli leaders, even though there were no children at school at the time.
Within hours, the Israeli military responded with air strikes to locations throughout Gaza. The targets were military training bases of Hamas, the militant Islamist group that governs the Gaza Strip, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another militant group that Israel said was responsible for the salvo on Tuesday.
The sound of sirens and reports from The Iron Dome picking up mortar from the sky over southern Israel continued all day long.
"The army will respond with great force to these attacks, Israel will demand a high price from anyone who tries to attack it, and we consider Hamas responsible for preventing such attacks against us," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a speech.
He said that Israel blamed Hamas and Islamic Jihad for the mortar fire. On Sunday, Israeli forces killed three Islamic Jihad fighters in retaliation for explosives planted along the Gaza border fence. The extremist Palestinian faction promised revenge for this attack.
Lt. Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli army spokesman, said that since early Tuesday morning, dozens of cartridge and missile grenades of Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip have been fired at Israel, making it the "largest quantity of missiles and mortars fired at Israel since 201
"We can not tolerate that," Conricus said. "Hamas transforms the fence into an active combat zone and we can not tolerate attacks on Israeli civilians and military targets."
Confluus said militant factions in Gaza have been given permission by Hamas in recent days to bring explosives to the city's 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 to attack Israel. Conricus said the tunnel was unusual in that it snaked under the southern border of the Gaza Strip into the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and then made a U-turn back to Israel. He said it was the 10th tunnel that Israel has discovered and destroyed since October.
Inhabitants of southern Israeli communities who were in and out of the air raid bunkers all day told the local media that the last fire round was the biggest one they had seen since the summer war in 2014 between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
Amir Peretz, the former Israeli Defense Minister who introduced the Iron Dome system, told the Israeli military radio it was a "sharp escalation." Peretz, who lives in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, said this was the most serious attack on Israel since 2014.
During the 50-day war this year, Palestinian militants fired hundreds of rockets into Israel. The Israeli military responded with air and naval forces and a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, an area from which it withdrew in 2005. More than 2,000 Palestinians were killed by Israel in this combat round, and more than 70 Israelis, mostly soldiers, died.
Tensions between Israel and Gaza have risen sharply in recent months. The inhabitants of the coastal enclave, which has been led by Israel and Egypt under land and sea blockades for more than ten years, held weekly demonstrations at the Israeli border fence. They call for a right to return to the country now in Israel and express frustration at a growing humanitarian crisis in what they call an open-air prison.
Earlier this month, on just one day of protests, Israeli troops killed more than 60 residents of the Gaza Strip, causing fierce criticism from around the world, which critics refer to as the Israeli tactic. Thousands of people were also injured by Israeli snipers.
On Tuesday, a fleet of about 65 boats from Gaza set sail and attempted to break the Israeli naval blockade to bring some of the injured to medical treatment at demonstrations abroad. Israel has not allowed all those injured to enter the other Palestinian territory on the West Bank for treatment. Hospitals in Gaza say they can not handle the large numbers of people who need medical care.
Hundreds of people from all over the Strip gathered at the port of Gaza to see the boats – a reversal of the flotillas who had been trying in recent years to break through the siege of Israel and invade the Gaza Strip. While most ships will return to Gaza after reaching the three-mile restricted zone, one of the ships plans to sail to Cyprus.
Local media reported that the boat had traveled nine nautical miles around noon and was accompanied by four Israeli warships.
Khaled el-Batsh, a senior figure of the Islamic Jihad and head of the protest committee, said the goal was "to alert the world to the 2 million people who live in Gaza and deserve a better life."
"The world needs to understand that the siege must be broken," Batsh said. He would not confirm or deny that the Islamic Jihad was behind the shells fired in Israel, but referred to the fighters who had been killed two days ago by Israeli troops.
"We will continue our demonstrations along the borders," he said.
Balousha reported from Gaza City.