Two rockets fired from Gaza landed in southern Israel on Sunday following a firefight in which two militants were killed, as Hamas said it was “ready” for another war.
The increase in violence comes just ahead of the second anniversary of Israel’s offensive in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, and follows weeks of rocket fire from Gaza and a string of retaliatory Israeli air raids.
Late Sunday morning, the Israeli military said two rockets fired from Gaza landed in the Eshkol region in the southern Negev desert, causing no injuries.
The rocket fire came after Israeli tanks launched at least 10 shells towards Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza, damaging three homes but causing no casualties.
Earlier Sunday, two Islamic militants were killed during an exchange of fire with Israeli soldiers on the border of Gaza, according to witnesses and the Al-Quds brigade, a militant Islamist group.
Israeli officials confirmed the clash, which took place east of Khan Yunis.
“Soldiers opened fire on members of a terrorist cell which was trying to place an explosive charge in the immediate vicinity of the security barrier (which separates Israel from the Gaza Strip),” an Israeli army spokeswoman told AFP.
“The incident happened in the south of the Gaza Strip and helicopters backed up the fire of the soldiers.”
After a similar incident a month earlier, in which there were no casualties, “soldiers received instructions not to hesitate to open fire when they saw terrorists placing booby-trap devices near the barrier”, the spokeswoman said.
Tension has been rising on the Gaza border, where armed Islamist groups have fired dozens of mortars and rockets into southern Israel.
In response, Israel has launched a series of air raids, including most recently early Saturday, that it said targeted training facilities and smuggling tunnels.
It has also launched targeted assassinations of several top members of the Army of Islam, a jihadist group accused by Israel of planning new attacks.
Meanwhile, the Hamas militant group that controls Gaza has said it plans to continue observing a truce with Israel, but also warned it was ready to resume fighting if there is an Israeli attack on the territory.
“There is a truce in effect in the field. It is real if Israel stops its aggression and ends its siege. But if there is any Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip we will respond strongly,” said a masked spokesman for Hamas’s armed wing, Al-Qassam Brigades, who identified himself as Abu Obeideh.
“We are completely ready to answer any Israeli aggression,” he said, speaking at a press conference on Saturday in Gaza City with three guards, who were all masked and armed.
Abu Obeideh also hinted that the group possessed a secret weapon.
“Our weapons are few compared to those of the Israeli occupation, but we have something that will worry the occupation,” he said without giving details.
Israel’s military said this week that one of its tanks patrolling the Gaza border had been hit by a Russian-made Kornet anti-tank rocket, the first time such a weapon had been encountered there.
At least 23 mortars and four rockets have been launched at Israel from Gaza in the past week, the army said, including a Qassam rocket that struck near a kindergarten in a southern Israeli kibbutz, wounding a teenage girl.
While most of the rockets fired have been by other groups, Israel says it holds Hamas responsible for maintaining calm in Gaza.
On December 27, 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, in response to hundreds of rockets fired into the Jewish state.
The war, which ended in a ceasefire on January 18, 2009, killed 1400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 13 Israelis, 10 of them soldiers.