Escalation With Gaza

More Than 70 Rockets and Mortars Hit South Israel, Three Wounded

Israel strikes Gaza in response to fire, killing four Palestinians; Iron Dome missile defense system intercepts 8 rockets heading toward Ashkelon.

Militants in the Gaza Strip fired more than 70 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel over the course of Wednesday, leaving three people wounded.

The rockets and mortars struck areas in the Eshkol Regional Council, Shaar Hanegev and the Ashkelon coast. Three migrant workers were hurt, two of  them seriously and one lightly, when a mortar shell struck the chicken coop where they were working.

Fire broke out in a greenhouse struck by a rocket, and several houses in the Eshkol Regional Council and Sha'ar Hanegev sustained damage in the attacks. A woman was treated for shock when a rocket struck directly into her home.

Residents of the area have been asked to remain in bomb shelters, and schools canceled classes.

The Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted eight rockets heading toward Ashkelon.

The Israel Defense Forces opened fire on targets in Gaza in response to the rockets, killing a Hamas gunman.

Two loud explosions shook Gaza City shortly after that attack, witnesses said, adding Israel had apparently targeted militants firing rockets.

Hamas officials also reported Israeli tanks firing into Gaza, which was confirmed by the IDF spokesman.

Hamas security forces were ordered to evacuate their facilities for fear they would become targets of Israeli air strikes. Crossings between Gaza and Israel were shut down following the exchanges of fire in the area.

Asked if Israel was considering a ground operation in the Palestinian territory, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Army Radio: "If we have no choice and the fire will continue, then they clearly will be hit harder and nothing is out of the  question."

The Israel Air Force carried out a strike on targets in the northern Gaza Strip late Tuesday, after eight mortar shells were fired into southern Israel several hours earlier.

Three Hamas militants were reportedly killed in the overnight attacks.

In a statement released Wednesday, Hamas and the Popular Resistance Committees said "these holy
missions come in response to the repeated, continuous crimes of the enemy
against our people, which killed four and injured 10 in the past 48 hours."

Also Tuesday, an Israel Defense Forces officer was seriously wounded during a military operation near the security fence on Israel's border with the Gaza Strip.

The army confirmed that the officer was wounded in an explosion. Though the cause of the blast is still unclear, the army suspects that the officer was wounded after a roadside bomb exploded in the area. In the past, roadside bombs have been used to target IDF forces patrolling the security fence.

"The IDF will not tolerate any attempt to harm Israeli citizens and security forces and work against anyone initiating terror against the state of Israel," a written statement issued by the IDF said, adding that Israel holds Gaza's Hamas rulers responsible, it said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would deliver a strong response to the attack. "We will fight and we will hit them very, very hard," Netanyahu said.

Rockets hit southern Israel
Ilan Assayag