Israel and Hamas on the brink of all-out war after fatal clashes

Three Palestinians killed in air raids as Israeli forces respond to rocket barrage

Palestinian mourners carry the bodies of two of the seven Hamas militants who were killed in an Israeli raid late Sunday, during their funerals in Khan Yunis, southern Gaza Strip. Photograph: AP Photo/Adel Hana

Palestinian mourners carry the bodies of two of the seven Hamas militants who were killed in an Israeli raid late Sunday, during their funerals in Khan Yunis, southern Gaza Strip. Photograph: AP Photo/Adel Hana

 

Israel and Hamas were hovering on the brink of an all-out conflict on Monday night after a serious flare-up in violence which, at least temporarily, has derailed an emerging ceasefire between the sides.

Egypt and the UN’s Middle East envoy Nikolay Mladenov had been mediating to stop the latest wave of violence spiralling into a fully fledged war.

Israeli jets pounded more than 70 militant targets across the Gaza Strip, killing at least three Palestinians, after more than 200 rockets and mortar bombs were fired into southern Israel, injuring more than 20 people. A Kornet anti-tank missile hit an empty Israeli bus, critically wounding a person standing close by. Schools close to the Gaza border remained closed following the onslaught, and residents were ordered to remain in bomb shelters or secure spaces.

The rocket barrage was in response to the killing of seven Palestinian fighters, including Hamas regional commander Nur Barakeh, in a botched Israeli covert operation on Sunday night. An Israeli soldier was also killed in the incident.

Militant groups fired 17 rockets into southern Israel following the Sunday night raid and Israel sent military reinforcements to the border.

The renewed tension followed promising signs over the last few days that an Egyptian-brokered truce was within reach to end months of cross-border violence. In a positive sign, Israel had allowed Qatar to transfer more than €13 million to Hamas to pay civil servants in Gaza, and fresh fuel supplies had also reached the area – allowing residents to enjoy more hours of electricity each day.

Hamas has now accused Israel of sabotaging the nascent ceasefire, warning that “Israel will be made to pay for its actions”. The group abandoned its military posts and threatened to strike deeper into Israel if the attacks on Gaza continued.

The Islamic Jihad described Monday’s rocket fire on Israeli communities as a “natural response in the name of the Palestinian people” to the killing of Barakeh.

At the same time, the militant groups announced they were not seeking a further escalation.

Ground operation

The Sunday night raid was the first known ground operation by Israeli forces inside Gaza since the war of 2014. The Israeli troops, travelling in a Palestinian civilian car provided by a local collaborator, were discovered east of the southern city of Khan Yunis as their car was heading back towards the border fence.

A fierce exchange of fire took place 3km inside the Gaza Strip, during which seven Palestinian militants were killed. An Israeli officer was also killed and a second soldier was moderately hurt. Israeli aircraft and tanks opened fire as the troops fled back into Israel.

Hamas confirmed that six of those killed were members of the group’s military wing, while the seventh man belonged to the Popular Resistance Committees. Chanting “revenge” and flanked by masked gunmen in camouflage, thousands of mourners attended the funerals of the seven Palestinians killed.

Israel denied Palestinian claims that Sunday’s raid was aimed at assassinating Barakeh, insisting that it was an intelligence-gathering operation.

Amid the violence, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu cut short a visit to Paris and returned home to hold emergency security consultations that continued into Monday night.