Are Israel and Hamas headed for another war?

GAZA CITY, Gaza — Militants, allegedly in Egypt, launched several missiles into Israel Monday morning, joining a wave of violence between Israel and Gaza over the weekend that has led to the greatest escalation of conflict here in more than a year.

At 11:30 p.m. Friday night, in response to several mortar and rocket attacks out of Gaza earlier in the day, the Israeli air force launched three near-simultaneous attacks on targets in Gaza.

In central Gaza City, which has been spared much of the tit-for-tat violence that has persisted in the wake of last January's war here, several intense blasts targeted a Hamas training facility. The attack was heard for miles and windows in surrounding buildings were shattered.

Hamas soldiers struggled to contain the surging crowd of onlookers as rumors that more Israeli attack planes were on the way induced further panic. One solider fired a warning shot into the air.

At Shifa Hospital, the scene was equally chaotic. Machine gun wielding police, families of the injured and an aggressive local press corps all jostled at the entrance as paramedics struggled to push stretchers through the door.

The Israeli attacks killed a Hamas commander in central Gaza and targeted smuggling tunnels in Rafah, a city on the Egyptian border. The rocket fired from Gaza Friday morning struck a populated area in the Israeli city of Ashkelon. No one, however, was injured.

While spurts of violence have not been uncommon since last January's war, Hamas had mostly avoided deploying its more sophisticated rockets on Israel's larger cities. In turn, Israel had mostly contained its air strikes to peripheral targets in Gaza, steering clear of city centers in an effort to reduce controversial civilian casualties.

This weekend’s violence came as the international community renews its push for the Palestinian National Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, and Israel to re-enter direct peace talks. The Israeli government said it believed the latest rocket attacks from Gaza are part of an effort to derail those talks.

The violence persisted all weekend. On Sunday night, an explosion at a house in the central Gaza city of Deir el Belah left 58 wounded, according to local hospital officials. Hamas has blamed Israel for the explosion. Israel denies the charge.

On Monday morning, rockets fired from the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt hit targets in Israel and Jordan, killing one. Israeli media reported that the rockets were in retaliation for the recent Israeli incursions in Gaza throughout the weekend.

Ahmed Bahar, a Hamas leader and speaker of parliament, attended the funeral of Issa Batran, the Hamas commander who was killed Friday night, using the opportunity to issue some of the most vitriolic rhetoric heard from Hamas.

Batran, he said in the eulogy, was “a legendary man, who was killed by rockets filled with treachery and betrayal.”

“There is no way we can leave our right to protect our Jerusalem,” he added, “and I say to you that victory is on our side.”

Israeli officials, in turn, have condemned the barrage of rockets coming from Gaza and Egypt, vowing to overcome the violence.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to Israeli media, called today’s violence a “criminal attack on innocent civilians in both Israel and Jordan [that] was instigated by terror groups who want to sabotage the peace process.”

While Hamas said the rocket and mortars fired into Israel on Friday did not come from them, Israel has previously said that it would hold Hamas, which effectively rules Gaza, responsible for any weapons deployed within the area’s borders.

Hamas, an Islamic militant group that has said it is committed to the destruction of Israel, took control of Gaza in a 2007 coup, which led Israel to enact a blockade against the coastal Palestinian territory.

Last January, Israel launched a major military operation inside Gaza after scores of rockets hit nearby Israeli towns in the months before. The three-week battle killed hundreds of Palestinians and largely stemmed the flow of rocket fire from Gaza.

This latest round of violence is largely seen as a distraction for Israel, which is focusing its attention on the threat coming from Iran, which Israel believes is seeking nuclear arms. Still, with violence at its highest point in a year and a half, it’s difficult to predict just how far the latest hostilities might escalate.

And Gazans aren’t optimistic.

“It seems like the violence is building to something worse,” said Ahmed Kassem, who had come to help friends dig out from this morning’s explosion in Deir el Belah.

Editor's note: In the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great forged a path from Greece through the modern Middle East to Persia. It was a path of conquest that empires would follow through the ages. Traces of each can be seen today in the culture, monuments, continuing military presence and people along the route, which ended for Alexander in Babylon, in modern-day Iraq. In this project, GlobalPost correspondent Theodore May sets out to see how Alexander’s influence lives on. He will be blogging about his travels at Backpacking to Babylon.