Israeli Air Strikes Kill 15 in Gazaإقرأ هذا الخبر بالعربية
Israeli air strikes on Gaza killed 15 Palestinians, including a militant group chief, medics said on Saturday, in the deadliest 24 hours in the border area in more than three years.
A Palestinian riding a motorcycle was killed and two others were wounded in an Israeli air raid close to the southern town of Rafah near the border with Egypt on Saturday afternoon, Palestinian medics said.
Two men also on a motorbike were killed earlier the same day in another raid on the town of Khan Yunis, medics said.
After that report the Israeli military said an aircraft had attacked "a terrorist squad" planning to fire rockets.
The raids came as Palestinian militants fired more than 90 rockets and mortar rounds into southern Israel since Friday morning, the army said.
The Palestinian barrage wounded four people, one of them seriously, Israeli military sources said. Israeli media said three of those wounded were Thai laborers working on a farm near the border with the Gaza Strip.
Residents interviewed on radio and television said they had been told to stay close to bomb shelters and that large public gatherings had been banned, leading to the cancellation of several football matches on Saturday.
An army statement said earlier that the air force had attacked a range of targets in Gaza since Friday, while Palestinian medics said a total of 15 Palestinians were killed.
One of the strikes killed the head of the Popular Resistance Committees, Zohair al-Qaisi, and fellow member Mahmoud Hanani, the ultra-hardline militant group said.
The PRC threatened reprisals for Qaisi's death, while al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of Islamic Jihad, said the air strikes also killed 10 of its members.
It was the deadly 24-hour period on the Gaza-Israel border since a devastating Israeli assault in December 2008-January 2009 aimed at halting Palestinian rocket attacks.
Thousands of mourners, many chanting calls for revenge and firing automatic weapons into the air, buried the 12 Palestinians killed earlier at funerals across Gaza on Saturday.
Palestinian security officials said that at one funeral, east of Gaza City and close to the Israeli border fence, Israeli troops opened fire at a crowd of mourners, wounding four people, one in the head.
The army had no immediate comment.
About 1,000 took part in Qaisi's funeral in Rafah.
The Israeli military said its air raids were "in direct response to the rocket fire at Israeli communities in southern Israel."
"Aircraft targeted a terrorist in the central Gaza Strip and six additional terrorist squads who were in the final stages of preparing to fire rockets at Israel from separate locations in the northern and the central Gaza Strip."
The PRC and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed offshoot of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement, said they fired rockets into Israel on Friday.
The Palestinian WAFA news agency quoted a statement by the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority condemning Israel's retaliation, saying it would "escalate the circle of violence in the region."
The Israeli military said Qaisi "was among the leaders who planned, funded and directed" a deadly cross-border attack into southern Israel from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula last August.
In that attack, gunmen carried out a coordinated series of shooting ambushes on buses and cars on Route 12, which runs along Egypt's border, 20 kilometers north of the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat.
Eight people were killed and more than 25 wounded in those attacks.
The PRC militants killed on Friday night were also "planning a combined terror attack that was to take place via Sinai in the coming days," the military said.
Hamas, which rules Gaza, has maintained a tacit truce with Israel, but other Palestinian groups regularly fire rockets and mortars across the border, often sparking retaliatory air strikes.
The relatively small PRC is one of the most active.
"We are not committed to the truce; we will respond very strongly to this (Israeli) crime," Abu Ataya, a spokesman for the PRC's military wing, the al-Nasser Salaheddin Brigades, told Agence France Presse.
Hamas also branded the killings a crime.
"The al-Qassam Brigades mourn the martyr leader Zohair Qaisi and martyr Mahmoud Hanani and confirm that their blood will not be wasted,," the group's military wing said.
"The recent Zionist escalation... comes as a part of the destabilization of a stable security situation in the Gaza Strip," the Hamas-run Gaza government's interior ministry said.