KIBBUTZ ZIKIM, Israel (Reuters) - A rocket fired from Gaza exploded near an Israeli kindergarten Tuesday as cross-border violence surged in the approach to the second anniversary of Israel’s war in the Hamas Islamist-run enclave.
No one was hurt at the preschool but a teenage girl in a nearby building was cut by flying glass in the shower.
“We were lucky,” said Ilan Goldsmith, community manager at Kibbutz Zikim, just north of the Gaza Strip. “It exploded at quarter to eight this morning, the exact time when parents are bringing their children in ... 28 children.”
The Palestinian-made Qassam rocket corkscrewed into the kibbutz, he said, exploding on a path about 10 meters (30 feet) from the kindergarten and two adjacent nursery buildings for the under-three year olds.
In retaliatory strikes, Israeli aircraft hit targets in Gaza, wounding five Hamas gunmen, three of whom were listed in critical condition, Palestinian officials and medics said.
“The situation in the south is tense and fragile, and it could deteriorate if a rocket attack causes a large number of casualties,” Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israeli military’s chief of staff, told a parliamentary committee.
An Israeli military spokesman said at least 14 rockets had been fired from Gaza — which is under an Israeli military blockade — in the past two days. An Israeli air strike in Gaza Saturday killed five militants from a rocket squad, in the heaviest toll during sporadic clashes this year.
Responsibility for Tuesday’s rocket attack was claimed by a group calling itself the Army of Islam, which has the same “global jihad” ideology as the al Qaeda movement. It said it was responding “to the massacres committed by the Zionist enemy.”
Hamas spurns permanent coexistence with the Jewish state, but its men have tried to curb the rocket fire from Gaza in recent years. Smaller groups continue to carry out attacks.
Hamas responded angrily to Tuesday’s Israeli strikes.
“The Occupation (Israel) bears responsibility for blowing the situation up,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said.
“It is a moral, humanitarian and national obligation to defend our people, land and sacred sites if our Zionist enemy insists on pressing ahead with its aggression.”
Israeli forces killed about 1,400 Palestinians in a three-week offensive on Gaza which began on December 27, 2008, after an unofficial truce collapsed under the pressure of sustained Hamas rocket fire and Israeli counter-attacks.
The Israeli army says more than 200 missiles, rockets and mortars have been fired from Gaza this year.
“We’re witnessing a certain escalation,” Information Minister Yuli Edelstein told reporters last week at a briefing on Israel’s program to open Gaza’s Israeli-controlled crossing point at Kerem Shalom to more trade.
The capacity of the logistics hub is being expanded from 100 goods trucks a day to 250, and to 400 by next year.
Critics of Israel’s three-year-old blockade say it has only made life harder for Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians. Hamas won elections in the enclave in 2006 then drove out the rival Fatah faction, which controls the West Bank, in fighting in 2007.
Goldsmith said Zikim residents enjoyed a period of calm following the Israeli offensive which ended on January 18, 2009, but had recently been expecting a return of random rocket fire.
Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ori Lewis, Ari Rabinovitch and Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem; editing by Andrew Dobbie