JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli police barred spectators from attending two Premier League matches in the south of the country on Saturday because of a fear of possible rocket strikes by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
Hapoel Beersheba lost 2-1 at home to Maccabi Netanya and Ashdod SC ended their fixture with visitors Hapoel Haifa in a goalless draw in empty stadiums.
"The decision to prevent spectators from attending the matches was taken as a precautionary measure, rockets have fallen today in the south of the country including in Ashdod," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
The desert city of Beersheba, about 30 km southeast of the Gaza Strip, and the Mediterranean port city of Ashdod, 15 km north of the coastal enclave, have been hit in the past few days by the militants' longer-range rockets.
All youth soccer matches in the region were called off and a premier league basketball fixture in Ashdod on Saturday night was also being played without spectators.
Since the spike in violence residents of southern Israel close to the Gaza Strip have been instructed to be ready to seek cover in air-raid shelters within seconds of sirens sounding.
On Saturday, Israel killed five Palestinian militants in a third straight day of air raids across the Gaza Strip and Palestinian militants fired dozens of rockets and mortar shells defying efforts of mediators to contain the violence.
The Gaza death toll since Israel launched its retaliation for an attack on a school bus that critically wounded a teenager on Thursday has climbed to 19 Palestinian militants and civilians, and 37 since the latest round of bloodletting began late last month.
Two years of periodic, low-level skirmishing on the border escalated suddenly last month when Islamist Hamas and other militant groups in the Gaza Strip showered rockets on Israel.
Gaza's Hamas ruling faction which calls for Israel's destruction, had largely withheld fire since a Gaza war in late 2008 in which 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.
Editing by Alan Baldwin