Israeli warplanes strike Gaza following rocket fire


Israeli warplanes struck Gaza early Thursday, drawing retaliatory rocket fire from Palestinian militants, as violence flared despite US calls for "urgent steps" to restore calm.

Israel said the pre-dawn strikes were in response to an earlier rocket launch and targeted military training camps used by Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas.

A statement from the Israeli military said fighter jets had "struck a production site for raw chemical material production, preservation and storage along with a weapon manufacturing site" belonging to Hamas.

The strikes came "in response to the rocket launch from the Gaza Strip into Israel earlier" Wednesday. 

"(Hamas) will face the consequences of the security violations against Israel," the army said on Twitter. 

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant vowed that Israel stood ready to respond to any attack.

"Every attempt to harm our citizens will be met with the full force of the IDF."

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem called the Israeli strikes "a continuation of the cycle of aggression against the Palestinian people". 

He accused Israel of "opening the door to escalation on the ground". 

During talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders earlier this week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged both sides to prevent further bloodshed.

He expressed sorrow for "innocent" Palestinians killed in months of spiraling violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, warning that the Palestinian people faced "a shrinking horizon of hope".

- Escalating violence -

The US top diplomat's visit came after a deadly upsurge in violence in the West Bank last week.

A Palestinian shot dead seven people outside a synagogue in an Israeli settler neighborhood of annexed east Jerusalem on Friday, a day after the deadliest army raid in years in the West Bank killed 10 Palestinians.

The synagogue attack on the Jewish Sabbath was the deadliest targeting Israeli civilians in more than a decade and was celebrated by many Palestinians in Gaza and across the West Bank.

Israel said its deadly raid on Jenin refugee camp targeted Islamic Jihad militants. An 11th Palestinian was killed elsewhere in the West Bank that day.

This year the conflict has killed 35 Palestinians -- including attackers, militants and civilians -- as well as the six Israeli civilians, including a child, and one Ukrainian, killed on Friday.

Last year was the deadliest year in the West Bank since the United Nations started tracking fatalities in the territory in 2005.

Some 235 people died in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last year, with nearly 90 percent of the deaths on the Palestinian side, according to AFP figures.

The Palestinian governor of Jericho on Wednesday accused Israel of putting the town under "siege" after a Saturday shooting at a restaurant, which had no casualties.

Jericho's ancient ruins have been a major tourism draw in the past.

"This is the fifth day of the siege on Jericho," governor Jihad Abu al-Assal told AFP.

Israel's army told AFP it had boosted its forces in the area and "inspections were increased at the city's entrances and exits".

An AFP correspondent said cars were backed up at entrances to the city, with checks to get in and out of the city often taking hours.

Islamic Jihad said it would send a delegation led by the militant group's leader Ziad al-Nakhala to Cairo on Thursday at Egypt's invitation.

The delegation would meet with the head of Egypt's intelligence service to discuss "how to restore calm, especially after the last escalation, including the aggressions against prisoners", said Daoud Shihab, a senior Islamic Jihad member in Gaza.

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