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Israeli air force strikes Gaza Strip in response to rocket attacks

An Israeli soldier looked out from inside a Merkava Tank along the border with Gaza.

EPA

An Israeli soldier looked out from inside a Merkava Tank along the border with Gaza.

JERUSALEM — For the second time in three days, the Israeli air force struck the Gaza Strip on Thursday night in response to rockets fired earlier from Gaza into Israel, continuing a new wave of violence that has complicated peace talks.

The Israeli military said in a statement that it had attacked a weapons manufacturing plant and a weapons storage facility. Witnesses in Gaza said that F-16 fighter jets had hit an open space in northern Gaza City and a training facility south of the city. Gaza medical officials said one resident suffered minor injuries.

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The airstrikes came after two rockets landed near the Israeli city of Ashkelon on Thursday — one just after midnight, the other in the evening. Neither caused injuries or damage. On Tuesday, a Palestinian sniper fatally shot an Israeli who was repairing the security fence bordering Gaza, prompting airstrikes and tank and infantry fire that killed a small child in Gaza and wounded several of her relatives.

The exchanges were the most significant since a cease-fire agreement between Israel and the militant Hamas faction that controls the Gaza Strip was signed in November 2012, after eight days of intense cross-border violence. Earlier Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel warned that Hamas would be held responsible, even if other groups, like Islamic Jihad, actually fired the rockets from Gaza.

“We will strike at those who attack us and at those who support them,” he said at an air force graduation ceremony, hours before the evening attack.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said in a statement that Gaza had become “a heinous sanctuary for rocket terrorism,” adding, “We will not tolerate daily aggression from the Hamas-ruled territory and are morally obligated to act against those threatening our communities, our towns and our cities.”

Besides the airstrikes, Israel closed its lone commercial crossing into Gaza on Wednesday, halting the transfer of badly needed fuel and preventing farmers from exporting strawberries. The director of Gaza’s sole power plant, which sputtered back to life on Dec. 15, thanks to a donation of diesel from Qatar after being shuttered for six weeks, said it would go dark again at 6 a.m. on Friday.

“We get fuel day by day,” said Rafik Maliha, the plant’s director. “If Israel doesn’t reopen the crossing point tomorrow, the station will be turned off.”

Gaza’s 1.7 million Palestinian residents had been without electricity for up to 18 hours a day when the power plant was not operating, and some sewage pumping stations had overflowed into streets.

The increase in violence in recent days has raised new questions about the American-brokered peace negotiations that started in July.

Israel is scheduled to release 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners, the third of four promised releases, early next week. Despite pleas from Washington and European envoys, Israel is expected to couple the release with an announcement of further construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, something Palestinian leaders have said threatens the viability of the talks.

Fares Akram contributed reporting from Gaza.
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