March 21, 2011 / 9:56 PM / 8 years ago

Israel air strikes wound 19 in Gaza Strip

GAZA (Reuters) - Israel launched air strikes in the Gaza Strip on Monday, wounding at least 19 people, after militants fired mortar shells and rockets into the Jewish state, witnesses and militant groups said.

The number of raids and casualties in one evening showed the rising tension between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza.

Hamas has stepped up rocket salvoes into Israel after a hiatus since the two sides fought a war two years ago, claiming responsibility for firing more than two dozen mortars and rockets at the weekend.

Israel killed two Palestinians in Gaza in a separate border confrontation on Saturday, medical officials said.

The Israeli military confirmed one of Monday’s air raids, saying several Hamas-affiliated militants were targeted in northern Gaza, as well as a tunnel used to smuggle weapons.

Hamas medical officials said 19 people were wounded in these strikes, including four militants, seven children and two women.

Witnesses in Gaza said Israeli warplanes fired a missile after three mortar rounds were shot at Israel. The Israeli missile landed harmlessly.

Israel fired five more missiles later, aiming at a Hamas security compound in Gaza City, a training camp north of the city, a brickworks and metal foundry in northern Gaza, and a target in southern Gaza, witnesses said.

Palestinian analysts linked the growing violence to calls for President Mahmoud Abbas to heal a four-year rift with Hamas.

Militants in Gaza often fire rockets at Israel but Hamas itself had avoided doing so or claiming responsibility for such attacks in recent months.

Abbas said last week he was willing to visit Gaza for talks aimed at reunifying Palestinian ranks. Hamas seized control of Gaza in a bloody 2007 struggle with Abbas’s Western-backed Fatah movement.

Some Hamas officials fear a reconciliation with Fatah could threaten the Islamists’ hegemony in Gaza. Israel has signaled it would see such reconciliation as a threat, given Hamas’s refusal to recognize its existence and join peace talks.

“I think the escalation from Hamas side is calculated,” Talal Okal, a Palestinian expert said in an interview, adding he believed Israel had similar motives, although both sides may try to avoid a wider conflagration.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; editing by Andrew Dobbie

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