Surge in Gaza violence amid hail of rockets and missiles
Gaza militants have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, killing at least four Israelis and bringing life to a standstill across the region in the bloodiest fighting since a 2014 war.
As Israel retaliated by pounding Gaza with airstrikes, the Palestinian death toll rose to 23, including two pregnant women and two babies.
The bloodshed marked the first Israeli fatalities from rocket fire since the 2014 war.
With Palestinian militants threatening to send rockets deeper into Israel and Israeli reinforcements massing near the Gaza frontier, the fighting showed no signs of slowing down.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent most of the day huddled with his security cabinet. Last night, the cabinet instructed the army to "continue its attacks and to stand by" for further orders.
Israel also claimed to have killed a Hamas commander involved in transferring Iranian funds to the group.
Israel and Hamas, an Islamic militant group that seeks Israel's destruction, have fought three wars since Hamas violently seized control of Gaza from Western-backed Palestinian forces in 2007. They have fought numerous smaller battles, most recently two rounds in March.
Lulls in fighting used to last for months or even years. But these flare-ups have grown increasingly frequent as a desperate Hamas, weakened by a crippling Egyptian-Israeli blockade imposed 12 years ago, seeks to put pressure on Israel to ease the closure.
The blockade has ravaged Gaza's economy, and a year of Hamas-led protests along the Israeli frontier has yielded no tangible benefits. In March, Hamas faced several days of street protests over the dire conditions.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said last night the militant group was "not interested in a new war".
He signalled readiness to "return to the state of calm" if Israel stopped its attacks "and immediately starts implementing understandings about a dignified life".
With little to lose, Hamas appears to be trying to step up pressure on Mr Netanyahu at a time when the Israeli leader is vulnerable on several fronts.
Fresh off an election victory, he is now engaged in negotiations with his hard-line political partners on forming a governing coalition. If fighting drags on, the normally cautious Mr Netanyahu could be weakened in his negotiations as his partners push for a tougher response.
Later this week, Israel marks Memorial Day, one of the most solemn days of the year, and its festive Independence Day. Next week, Israel is to host the Eurovision song contest. Prolonged fighting could overshadow these important occasions and deter foreign tourists.
In Washington, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Israelis had "every right to defend themselves."
The current violence began with sporadic rocket fire amid Palestinian accusations that Israel was not keeping its promises to loosen the blockade.
On Friday, two Israeli soldiers were wounded by snipers from Islamic Jihad, a smaller Iranian-backed militant group that often co-operates with Hamas but sometimes acts independently. Israel responded by killing two Palestinian militants, leading to intense rocket barrages and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes beginning on Saturday.
Islamic Jihad threatened to strike deeper into Israel, saying it "is ready to engage in an open confrontation and can open a broader front to defend our land and people".
By yesterday, the Israeli military said militants had fired over 600 rockets, with the vast majority falling in open areas or intercepted by the Iron Dome rocket-defence system. But more than 30 rockets managed to strike urban areas. Israeli officials said Moshe Agadi, a 58-year-old Israeli father of four, was fatally struck in the chest by shrapnel in the southern town of Ashkelon.
The other deaths included a 49-year-old man killed when a rocket hit an Ashkelon factory, a man who was killed when his vehicle was hit by a Kornet anti-tank missile near the Gaza border, and a 35-year-old man whose car was hit by a rocket in the southern city of Ashdod.
Palestinian medical officials reported 23 dead, including at least eight militants hit in targeted airstrikes. At least four civilians, including two pregnant women and two babies, were also among the dead.