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By Lawahez Jabari, Saphora Smith and Yuliya Talmazan
TEL AVIV, Israel — The militant group controlling the Gaza Strip pledged to step up attacks if Israel continued “its aggression” as both sides exchanged fire in a flare-up that threatened to derail painstaking truce-efforts on Tuesday.
The threat from Hamas came as the Israeli military said it was carrying out a “wide-scale strike on military targets throughout the Gaza Strip” and Palestinians kept up their most intense rocket fire on Israel since the 2014 Gaza war.
The flare-up has killed six Palestinians, two of them militants, and an Israeli civilian. It threatens to derail efforts by the United Nations, Egypt and Qatar to broker a long-term truce and head off another major conflict in the impoverished and blockaded enclave. Some 70 percent of Gaza’s population are refugees or descendants of refugees, and a similar proportion depends on humanitarian aid.
The violence appeared to be triggered by a botched Israeli raid into Gaza Sunday that left seven Palestinian militants dead, including a local Hamas commander. An Israeli army officer was also killed during the incursion by Israeli special forces.
Palestinian militants have launched 400 rockets or mortar bombs across the border after carrying out a surprise guided-missile attack Monday on an Israeli bus that wounded a soldier, the Israeli military said.
Hamas — which has controlled Gaza since 2007 and is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the U.S. — and other armed factions continued to fire a barrage of rockets at the Israeli city of Ashkelon, some eight miles from the Gaza border, as well as at other border communities.
A 40-year-old man was killed when a rocket hit a residential building in Ashkelon, according to Magen David Adom, Israel’s national emergency service.
Meanwhile, the Israeli military continued to hit throughout the Gaza Strip. As of midday (5 a.m. ET), more than 150 targets had been attacked, among them Hamas government buildings and its television station, the Israeli Defense Force said.
Overnight, the Israeli Defense Forces claimed responsibility for an airstrike that completely destroyed the Hamas-run Al-Aqsa TV station in Gaza. The IDF later released video footage of the attack calling it “a strategic Hamas terror target.”
A broader coalition of militant groups warned Monday that in the event of “excessive” Israeli aggression they would “increase the extent and depth and intensity of bombing sites.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a security cabinet meeting Tuesday to discuss the situation after cutting short his visit to Paris to return for emergency talks.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt weighed in on the clashes saying the U.S. stands with Israel as it defends itself from Hamas violence.
“The world is fed up with Hamas violence and the violence of other actors in Gaza,” he said in a tweet.
Israel has fought three wars in Gaza in the last decade, and fears are growing that a new conflict is on the way.
The fighting came days after a $15 million Qatari cash infusion was paid out to impoverished civil servants in Gaza, offering Hamas a potential domestic reprieve though Israel said the money would not go to the dominant Islamist group.
Residents on either side of the border said they heard gunfire as they tried to sleep or socialized Sunday night as the botched Israeli raid spun out of control.
Ma’amoun Shawaf, a 23-year-old owner of a coffee shop in Khan Younis, said he heard people shouting “Israeli forces, go back, go back,” call people to leave the area.
Shawaf said he rushed to where the shooting had started and saw bodies on the floor and people injured. “At that moment, I understood that something big is happening,” he said. “And I started telling my friends that the war will start tonight.”
On the other side of the border in Israel, Adele Raemer said she could not sleep for the sounds of explosions and gunfire. “We are used to riding this roller coaster,” said the 63-year-old ESL teacher and a Bronx native.
“Nobody likes the roller coaster, but we are on it. And the thing is — you never know when you are going to get on it and you never know when this ride is over.”
Lawahez Jabari reported from Tel Aviv. Saphora Smith and Yuliya Talmazan reported from London.