The worst exchange of strikes between Israel and the Gaza Strip so far this year entered its second day on Saturday, as Israeli aircraft carried out raids that have so far killed 14 Palestinians, according to a Palestinian count, and militants responded with nearly 100 rockets.
The flare-up began Friday with a strike that killed a commander who the Israelis said was planning an attack. This unleashed a fierce rocket barrage by Palestinian militants from the coastal territory toward Israel's southern border communities. One of those rockets seriously wounded an Israeli civilian and sent families scattering into bomb shelters.
By midday Saturday, militants had fired 92 rockets at Israel — far more than the total number fired from the beginning of this year until this exchange of strikes began, an Israeli military spokesperson said. He spoke anonymously in line with military regulations.
Egypt said it was trying to shackle together a cease-fire to halt the violence, but truce hopes seemed distant on Saturday, as the sounds of explosions and rocket fire reverberated across coastal Gaza and parts of southern Israel.
Egypt's envoy to the Palestinians said Israel had violated a long-unspoken truce on the Gaza border and called for calm.
"We are calling on all sides to return to a cease-fire," said Egyptian consul Yasser Usman from the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Gaza residents said they could hear the low whooshing noise of militants firing rockets from border areas toward Israel.
In the skies above them Israeli drones hovered, making tinny noises. Hundreds of Palestinian mourners gathered on the streets to bury their dead. They were carried in coffins, their bodies too torn up to be wrapped up in cloth, as Muslim tradition dictates. Masked militants among them sprayed machine-gun fire above their heads in angry grief.
In Israel's southern border areas, residents were told to stay home and to refrain from holding large outdoor events.
This is the most deadly attack on Gaza Israel has undertaken in several months.
Islamic Jihad’s military wing the Al-Quds Brigades said in a statement that 10 of their fighters had been killed since Friday. It added that it had launched 41 Grad missiles, 20 homemade projectiles, six mortar shells, and three 107-mm rockets at Israeli targets.
The Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) also said that it fired rockets at Israeli targets.
The PRC is mostly known for carrying out the 2006 abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and holding on to him for more than five years until he was freed in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners last year.
Reuters quoted the Israeli military as saying that at least 70 rockets have been fired at Israel since Friday, including 10 longer-range Grad rockets intercepted by Israel's "Iron Dome" missile interceptor system.
Israeli said that on Friday it killed Zuhir al-Qaissi, the secretary general of the PRC, and his son-in-law Mahmoud Hanani, himself a top PRC field commander. Another low ranking Gaza militant was also reported to have died.
Palestinian witnesses said Israeli drones were seen hovering above just moments before Qaissi’s blue sedan burst into flames. They said the blast was so fierce that Qaissi’s head was torn off.
The Israeli military said Qaissi was plotting an infiltration attack into Israel similar to the raid from Egypt’s Sinai peninsula that they claim he orchestrated in August, which killed eight Israelis and injured 40 more.
"(We) won't give this occupation a free truce while our leaders and heroes are being killed," said Abu Mujahid, spokesperson for Qaissi's group. "Although the price will be difficult, there is no choice."
According to Palestinian news website Ma'an, 12 of the dead Palestinians are Qaissi, Hanani, Muhammad al-Ghamry, Fayiq Saad, Muatasim Hajjaj, Ubeid Gharabli, Muhammad Hararah, Hazim Qureiqi, Shadi Sayqali, Muhammad Maghari, Mahmoud Najim, and Ahmad Hajjaj.
An Israeli military statement said the latest air strikes had targeted two weapons manufacturing sites. The strikes were launched in response to rocket fire from Gaza that injured four people in Israel, it added.