Gaza strikes leave 21 dead
Israeli action answered by Palestinian rockets in ferocious fight
At least 21 people have been killed in Israeli strikes on Gaza, while Palestinian fighters fired hundreds of rockets into Israel as a ferocious cross-border conflict stretched into a second day.
Gaza's Health Ministry officials said three children were among the dead and 70 people had been wounded since the violence erupted on Tuesday after an Israeli air strike killed a senior Islamic Jihad commander accused of masterminding recent attacks.
Sources within the 40km besieged strip said that at least three fighters were among the dead.
The Israeli military said that militants had fired more than 250 rockets at Israel, with rocket sirens sounding as far north as Tel Aviv and Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem.
There were no reported casualties, thanks to Israel's powerful Iron Dome missile system which the military said intercepted some 90pc cent of the projectiles.
However, a few homes sustained direct hits and most of the country was brought to a standstill, with schools closed and large gatherings banned.
The fighting was triggered by Israel's targeting of Bahaa Abu al-Ata, a north Gaza commander in the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad militant group, who was killed in an air strike at dawn on Tuesday, alongside his wife.
At the same time, another strike attributed to Israel targeted a senior Islamic Jihad commander at his home in Damascus, Syria.
Islamic Jihad confirmed that two of its militants were killed in separate strikes south of Gaza City. Medics later said another man was killed by an air strike while on a motorcycle.
In response to the killing of its commander and his wife, Islamic Jihad fired about 200 rockets into Israel on Tuesday, resuming yesterday morning.
Despite attempts by diplomats to restore calm, an Islamic Jihad official said that his group told mediators it intended to carry on its retaliatory attacks.
"Attempts to restore calm did not succeed. The Islamic Jihad see that it is time to respond to the assassination policy which was revived by the Zionist enemy," the official said, asking not to be identified.
"The enemy will pay the price of its foolishness and we are determined to confront this aggression with all our might."
However, there was no sign that Hamas, the much larger Islamist group that controls Gaza, was inclined to be drawn into the fray.
Hamas and Israel have managed to defuse previous escalations and avoid a full-scale conflict for the past five years, after fighting three wars from 2008-2014.
The rockets from Gaza sent Israelis rushing to shelters in towns near the Gaza border and deeper in the country, with air raid sirens going off as far north as Tel Aviv and missiles striking Israeli highways and towns. There were no reports of deaths in Israel.
The Israeli military assembled armoured vehicles along the border with Gaza, though a ground incursion into the territory seemed unlikely at this stage.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel, having taken out the Islamic Jihad commander, was not interested in a broader conflict.
"We don't want escalation, but we are responding to every attack against us with a very sharp attack and response. Islamic Jihad best understand that now rather than when it's too late for it," Mr Netanyahu said.
In Gaza, schools and most government offices remained closed for a second day, as were schools throughout much of southern Israel.
Israel captured Gaza in a 1967 war and withdrew troops and settlements in 2005. The territory has been controlled since 2007 by Hamas while under an Israeli security blockade, also backed by Egypt, which has wrecked its economy.