Clashes escalate as Gaza trading rocket firing with Israel

Clashes escalate as Gaza trading rocket firing with Israel

JERUSALEM, July 3 (Xinhua) -- Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired volleys of rockets into southern Israel early Thursday with one projectile hitting a private nursery school as Israel was contemplating a large-scale military operation to halt rocket fire from the coastal enclave.

Eighteen rockets were lobbed at southern Israeli communities in the western Negev since midnight, according to the Israeli army. Three struck residential buildings in the town of Sderot and six exploded in open areas, causing no casualties. Two projectiles were intercepted by the Iron Dome rocket defense system, and the rest fell short and landed in Gaza.

Of the three rockets that struck residential buildings in the town of Sderot on Thursday morning, one slammed into an apartment that serves as a private nursery school and hosted five infants. The projectile did not explode on impact.

"We were all in a secure room. There was a weak boom and then a strong one," Tammy Jorano, who operates the nursery, told Israel's Ynet news site. "I told a mother that judging by the noise, it ( the rocket) fell in my home, so I went out to the garden to search for it and didn't imagine that it's in my bedroom."

"I'm shocked and still a bit afraid, but the children are okay. They're babies, so they don't understand," she said.

Hours before the latest barrage, the Israeli Air Force launched precision strikes against 15 suspected Hamas targets across Gaza, targeting concealed rocket launchers, along with weapons storage and training facilities, the Israeli army said in a statement.

The airstrikes came after more than 20 rockets and mortar shells were launched toward Israel throughout Wednesday, most of which were fired at night and landed in open areas, causing neither injuries nor damage. Palestinian sources reported at least 10 Gazans wounded in the strikes.

A separate airstrike on Wednesday evening targeted militants in southern Gaza who were poised to fire rockets and mortars. The military said a mortar-launching position was destroyed in the attack.

Violence along the Israel-Gaza border has surged since the abduction and murder of three Jewish teenagers. Israel has blamed Islamist militant group Hamas for the kidnapping, arresting hundreds of its members and shutting down its charity institutions in the West Bank during the 18-day search for the youths, whose bodies were discovered in a field near the city of Hebron on Monday.

Speaking at the Defense Ministry after their funerals on Tuesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Hamas continues to encourage abductions of Israeli civilians and is directly responsible for Gaza rocket attacks.

"If necessary, we'll expand the campaign against Hamas as much as required," he said in televised remarks.

Israeli defense officials speculated that Hamas was also behind Thursday's rocket fire, apparently as a show of solidarity with Palestinians in east Jerusalem who say an Arab youth, whose burnt body was discovered in a Jerusalem forest early Wednesday, was abducted and murdered by Israelis in retribution for the killing of the three Israeli teenagers.

Police found the body of Mohammed Abu-Hadir, 16, shortly after residents in Beit Hanina, an Arab neighborhood, reported he was forced into a vehicle Tuesday night.

Violent confrontations in east Jerusalem ensued, with several hundred protesters hurling stones, firebombs and pipe bombs at riot police who answered by firing tear gas. There were no reports of severe injuries.

Netanyahu called on police to swiftly identify the culprits and the motives of what he called the "despicable" murder of the boy.