Israeli soldier killed by gunmen, retaliatory airstrikes kill 4 Palestinians

Israel pummelled Hamas targets in Gaza Friday, killing four Palestinians, mostly Hamas operatives, in a series of airstrikes after gunmen shot an Israeli soldier near the border, officials said.

The military said a "terrorist squad" fired at troops, and one soldier was severely injured and later died of his wounds. He was the first Israeli military fatality in months of violence along the Gaza border.

After the Palestinian fire, Israel's military said it struck 15 Hamas positions including weapon warehouses, command and control centers and training facilities. It said "fighter jets commenced a wide-scale attack against Hamas military targets throughout the Gaza Strip."

It added that "Hamas chose to escalate the security situation and will bear the consequences for its actions."

Smoke rises following an Israeli air strike in Gaza City Friday. (Ahmed Zakot/Reuters)

The Gaza Health Ministry said four Palestinians were killed. The militant Islamic Hamas that rules Gaza said three of the dead were members of the group. Gaza media reported that gunmen had fired mortars toward the border.

Sirens wailed Friday night in parts of southern Israel warning of incoming Palestinian rockets. Israel said two were intercepted by its Iron Dome aerial defence system.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with military brass Friday night to assess the developments, media reported.

'Painful military operation'

Earlier Friday, Israel's Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited Sderot, an Israeli town near Gaza that has been hard hit by Palestinian rockets over the years.

"The heads of Hamas are forcibly leading us to a no choice situation in which we will need to embark on wide and painful military operation," Lieberman said.

A relative of a Palestinian who was killed by Israeli troops east of Khan Younis reacts in the central Gaza Strip Friday. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

On Saturday, Israel pounded Hamas targets in its largest bombardment campaign since the 2014 war, as Gaza militants fired dozens of rockets toward Israel.

Israel says it has no interest is engaging in another war with Hamas, but says it will no longer tolerate the Gaza militant campaign of daily flying incendiary kites and balloons across the border that have torched Israeli crops, burned nature reserves and killed wildlife. 

Hamas says weekly protests will continue

Hamas on Friday vowed it will continue weekly protests and the launching of incendiary devices at Israel.

Khalil al-Hayya, a top Hamas leader, said "the protests will remain, flaming and existing, and its tools will multiply and diversify, including kites, until our goals are achieved." 

For what is believed to be the first time, an incendiary balloon of the kind used in Gaza was found in the garden of southeast Jerusalem home close to the Palestinian town of Beit Jala. Police sappers dealt with the device.

The weekly protests led by Gaza's Hamas rulers against Israel are meant in part to draw attention to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed after the militant group assumed control of Gaza in 2007. 

The demonstrations have been fuelled in large part by opposition to the blockade, which has caused widespread economic hardship.

At least 135 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since the border protests began on March 30. The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs says a "large number" of the casualties were among unarmed demonstrators.

Israel says it is defending its sovereign border and accuses Hamas, a group sworn to its destruction, of using the protests as cover for attempts to breach the border fence and attack civilians and soldiers.

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