JERUSALEM — Israel struck more than 150 targets in Gaza in response to a barrage of rockets from the Palestinian territory, its military said Thursday, in a significant escalation even as negotiations took place on a longer term cease-fire.
Militants in the strip fired more than 180 rockets and mortars into Israel between Wednesday evening and midday on Thursday, the Israeli military said. Most were intercepted or fell on open ground but at least 11 Israelis were injured after some slammed into residential areas, blowing out windows and leaving cars and buildings pockmarked with shrapnel.
The Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza said a 23-year old pregnant mother and her 18-month-old daughter were among the three Palestinians killed in the airstrikes that followed. The other was a fighter with Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza. The Israeli military said it only struck military targets including production sites for weapons and tunnels.
The escalation, one of the most intense exchanges of fire since the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, came amid Egyptian-brokered talks in Cairo over a cease-fire between the two sides. Violence has bubbled up sporadically in recent months but residents of both Gaza and Israeli communities surrounding it said the overnight exchange reached a new level of ferocity.
Some analysts put the escalation on Thursday down to a show of force by Hamas as talks took place.
“As we approach a potential agreement it’s extremely important for Hamas to deliver the message that we are not going there because we are weak,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, a retired brigadier general and the former director general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs. Israel in turn needs to send the message that there’s a “price to pay,” he said.
The flare up, however, will distract from finding a more lasting solution to Gaza’s long term economic problems, he said.
The 140 square mile-strip, under partial blockade by Israel for more than a decade, suffers from chronic unemployment and a lack of infrastructure and services. Other discussions in Cairo had focused on how to bring about investment, employment and return the Palestinian Authority’s control to the territory.
The White House has said that easing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is one of its priorities because the resulting lack of stability is also a major security concern for Israel. Tensions have been particularly high in the wake of Palestinian demonstrations on the fence with Israel during which more than 130 were killed.
Hamas had thrown their full weight behind the protests, a welcome distraction from growing dissatisfaction with its rule among Gaza residents. Israel accused Hamas of using them as a cover to carry out attacks.
The United Nations representative to the peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, who has attempted to help mediate a cease-fire said he was “deeply alarmed” by the latest events and warned that it risks turning into a “conflict that nobody wants.”
“If the current escalation however is not contained immediately, the situation can rapidly deteriorate with devastating consequences for all people,” he said in a statement.
As part of a cease-fire deal, Israel is insisting that Hamas stop sending incendiary kites and balloons over the border, Israeli and Palestinian officials say.
Hamas and Israel have also opened channels for indirect talks on prisoner exchanges. Those have hit a stumbling block as Hamas is insisting that the release include all prisoners that were part of a 2011 prisoner exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit but have since been rearrested, according to Palestinian officials who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the talks.
After a sleepless night for residents of Gaza and nearby Israeli communities on Wednesday, there was little respite on Thursday morning as sirens warning of incoming rockets continued to blare while airstrikes hit more targets.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another Gaza militant group, said they had targeted Israeli communities in response to Israel’s “aggression.”
“Another night of terror & families huddling in fear as Israel defends itself,” tweeted U.S. Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt. “This is the Hamas regime’s choice.”
Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said reinforcements had been sent to the area and that the military was prepared for various “eventualities.”
Hazem Balousha in Gaza City contributed.