GAZA CITY // Palestinian militants traded rockets and mortars with Israeli airstrikes yesterday hours after the Qatari emir toured Gaza.
Attacks by Israeli jets killed four Palestinians and the Israeli military said 72 mortars and rockets fired from Gaza hit southern Israel.
The new violence erupted after months of simmering hostilities punctuated by minor flare-ups between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules Gaza.
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani visited Gaza on Tuesday promising to spend $400 million (Dh1.47bn) to repair the ravages of Israel's war on the territory four years ago. He was the first head of state to visit since Hamas took power in 2007.
The spike in attacks after he left raised questions as to whether the emir's visit had emboldened Hamas, which in turn accused Israel of venting its anger at the Qatari leader's support by bombing Gaza.
Hamas’s armed wing said it carried out some of yesterday’s attacks, a sign that Qatari diplomatic and financial backing had failed to restrain the group from clashing with Israel.
Hamas has rarely claimed responsibility for rocket and mortar fire since Israel’s three-week war on Gaza, which began in December 2008 and killed up to 1,400 Palestinians.
That resulted in a de facto ceasefire in which Hamas would allow smaller militant groups to blow off steam by launching limited – and temporary – strikes on Israel.
“The occupation is responsible for every drop of blood in this aggressive escalation,” Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesperson, said yesterday.
Israel hinted yesterday at further attacks to come, and the use of ground troops was not ruled out.
“We didn’t ask for this escalation and didn’t initiate it,” the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said after he toured a battery of Israeli missile-defence systems.
“But if it continues, we are prepared to embark on a far more extensive and penetrating operation.”
The defence minister, Ehud Barak, told Israel Radio: “We will do whatever necessary to stop this wave of violence. If we need a ground operation, there will be a ground operation.”
However, Brig Gen Yoav Mordechai, an army spokesman, said a ground assault to overthrow Hamas was unlikely because this “would require a prolonged operation with multiple implications, mainly political”.
He said Israel had not “reached the stage where we are talking about this option”. In the skies above Gaza yesterday, the smoke trails of Palestinian-launched Qassam rockets disappeared in an arc over the horizon, and the explosions of Israeli-fired weaponry reverberated throughout the territory.
The only pedestrian border crossing linking Gaza with Israel was closed after an Israeli missile struck the Hamas-run side early yesterday.
* Additional reporting by the Associated Press and Reuters