Palestinian militants fire rockets after Israel strikes Gaza

Palestinian militants fired dozens of rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel on Wednesday, in a first response to ongoing Israeli airstrikes that have killed 19 Palestinians, including three senior militants and at least 10 civilians.

The rocket fire set off air-raid sirens throughout southern Israel and as far away as the Tel Aviv area, on the Mediterranean Sea, 80 kilometres away. Residents had been bracing for an attack since Israel carried out its first airstrikes early Tuesday.

Israeli TV stations showed air defence systems intercepting rockets above the skies of Tel Aviv. In the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, people lay face-down on the ground as they took cover during one attack.

In a move that could further raise tensions, Israeli police said they would permit a Jewish ultranationalist parade to take place next week. The parade - meant to celebrate Israel's capture of east Jerusalem and its Jewish holy sites - marches through the heart of the Old City's Muslim Quarter and often leads to friction with local Palestinian residents.

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Israeli security forces take cover during an air raid siren warning of incoming rockets fired from Gaza, in Sderot, Israel, near the Gaza border, Wednesday, May 10, 2023 - Tsafrir Abayov/Copyright 2023 The AP All rights reserved

As air raid sirens continued to wail, Israeli media said at least 100 rockets had been fired. Israeli rescuers said two people were hurt running for shelter, and local officials said an empty home in the southern town of Sderot was struck.

Throughout the day, Israeli aircraft hit targets in Gaza for the second straight day, killing at least three Palestinians.

Tuesday's strikes killed three senior Islamic Jihad militants and at least 10 civilians — most of them women and children. Palestinian militants have pledged to retaliate while Israel says it is prepared for a further escalation of hostilities.

The Israeli military said its attacks were focused on Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant infrastructure in the coastal enclave.

The army said one airstrike targeted militants travelling to a rocket launcher site in southern Gaza Strip.

Medics said the strike killed one man and seriously wounded another. Later Wednesday, another airstrike killed a Palestinian in northern Gaza and two Palestinians in the southern city of Rafah. Palestinian officials could not confirm whether the targets were militants.

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Palestinians mourn for Mohammed Abu Taima, killed in an Israeli airstrike, in Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, Wednesday, May 10, 2023. - Fatima Shbair/Copyright 2023 The AP All rights reserved

It also remained unclear whether two Palestinians killed in a separate airstrike late Tuesday were militants or civilians. Israel has claimed the men were preparing to fire anti-tank missiles.

The Israeli military had instructed residents of southern Israel to remain near bomb shelters, and schools were still closed for a second day as a precaution against rocket attacks.

Israel says the airstrikes are a response to a barrage of rocket fire launched last week by Islamic Jihad in response to the death of one of its members from a hunger strike while in Israeli custody.

Israel says it is trying to avoid conflict with Hamas, the more powerful militant group that rules Gaza, and confine the fighting to Islamic Jihad.

"Our actions are meant to prevent further escalation," said Rear Adm. Danny Hagari, the Israeli military's chief spokesman. "Israel is not interested in war."

Hamas has expressed solidarity with its smaller counterpart in Gaza, and the two groups often coordinate with one another.

If the violence continues, the risk of a full-blown war could increase. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars since the Islamic group, which opposes Israel's existence, took control of Gaza in 2007.

Israel has come under international criticism for the high civilian toll on Tuesday, which included wives of two of the militant commanders, some of their children and a dentist who lived in one of the targeted buildings along with his wife and son.

In past conflicts, rights groups have accused Israel of committing war crimes due to the high number of civilian deaths. Israel says it does its utmost to avoid civilian casualties and holds militant groups responsible, saying they operate in heavily populated residential areas and use residents as human shields.

Meanwhile, Israel police said they would allow the annual flag-waving march marking "Jerusalem Day" to take place along its traditional route through a main Palestinian thoroughfare in the Old City on Thursday next week. The decision could raise the risk of further violence.

Thousands of Israeli nationalists take part each year, with some chanting racist slogans, as they walk across the Old City to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in the Jewish Quarter. Last year's march was marked by violence, and in 2021, the march helped trigger a rocket attack on Jerusalem and an 11-day war with Hamas.

Earlier on Wednesday, the military said that Palestinian gunmen opened fire at troops in the Palestinian town of Qabatiya in the northern West Bank during an army raid. Troops returned fire, killing the two men, and confiscated their firearms, it said.

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Mourners carry the bodies of Ahmed Assaf, 19, and Rani Qatanat, 24, draped in the flag of Islamic Jihad, two Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in Qabatiya. May 10, 2023 - Majdi Mohammed/Copyright 2023 The AP All rights reserved

The Palestinian Health Ministry identified the slain men as Ahmed Assaf, 19, and Rani Qatanat, 24. The Islamic Jihad militant group later claimed the two men as its members.

Israel has been conducting near-daily military raids in the occupied West Bank for over a year to detain suspected Palestinian militants, including many from Islamic Jihad. The northern West Bank city of Jenin and its environs have been the frequent target of such raids as it has emerged as a hub of Palestinian militant activity.

Israel says the raids in the West Bank are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart future attacks.

At least 107 Palestinians, around half of them militants, have been killed by Israeli fire in the occupied West Bank since the start of 2023, according to an Associated Press tally. At least 20 people have been killed in Palestinian attacks targeting Israelis.

Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza in the 1967 Mideast War. The Palestinians seek all three areas for a future state.