Israeli forces killed seven Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip on Sunday in air strikes and an undercover raid that Hamas said targeted one of its commanders and the Israeli military said left one of its officers dead and another wounded.
The Israeli incursion and air attacks drew rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled enclave, with sirens sounding in Israeli communities along the border. The military said its defences intercepted two of the launches. There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage on the Israeli side of the boundary.
The violence prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cut short a visit to Paris, where he had been gathering with world leaders for a First World War commemoration.
Hamas said the incident began when assailants in a passing car opened fire on a group of its armed men, killing Nour Baraka, one of its local commanders. Hamas gunmen gave chase as the car sped back toward the border with Israel, Hamas said in a statement.
During the pursuit, Israeli aircraft fired more than 40 missiles in the area, according to witnesses. Palestinians fired 17 rockets into southern Israel late on Sunday in response to the incursion and air strikes; no new rocket launches were reported on Monday morning.
Israeli military chief Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said a "special force" carried out "a very meaningful operation to Israel's security," without elaborating.
Israeli military spokesperson Lt.-Col. Jonathan Conricus said the operation was "not intended to kill or abduct terrorists but to strengthen Israeli security." He said the force faced a "very complex battle" and was able to "ex-filtrate in its entirety."
A return by Israel to a policy of targeting individual Hamas commanders — tactics largely abandoned in recent years — could significantly raise tensions along the border.
Tensions remain on Israel-Gaza border
The unexpected spasm of violence came days after both Israel and Hamas had begun taking steps to ratchet down months of border fighting that has seen thousands of protesters descend on the perimeter fence between Gaza and Israel, with many throwing stones, burning tires and hurling grenades at Israeli troops.
Violence has flared frequently on the frontier since Palestinians began weekly protests on March 30. Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations have been trying to broker a long-term ceasefire.
Last week, Israel allowed Qatar to deliver $ 15 million US in aid to Gaza's cash-strapped Hamas rulers. Hamas responded by lowering the intensity of the border protest last Friday.
While the fighting eased early on Monday, and the sides appeared to show restraint, the fate of the progress toward a truce remained uncertain. It was not clear what exactly touched off Sunday's fighting.
On Sunday, Netanyahu defended his decision to allow through the Qatari cash to Gaza as a way to avert an "unnecessary war," maintain quiet for residents of southern Israel and prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in the impoverished Gaza Strip.
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