RAMALLAH: Israeli aircraft struck targets in the Gaza Strip early on Wednesday in retaliation for Palestinian fighters launching several rockets into southern Israel, as in the heaviest exchange of fire between the sides since they agreed to an internationally brokered cease-fire in November.
There were no casualties reported, but the violence nonetheless threatened to shatter the calm that has prevailed for more than four months.
Israel’s new defence minister Moshe Yaalon said he holds the Hamas responsible for all such attacks from the seaside strip.
Overnight Wednesday, Israel struck a pair of empty fields in northern and eastern Gaza.
But just around the time Yaalon was speaking on Wednesday morning, two more rockets exploded in the Israeli border town of Sderot, according to police.
Air raid sirens sounded throughout the town, forcing people on their way to work and school to take cover.
No injuries were reported.
The Israeli military said a total of five rockets had been fired in the past 24 hours, including two that exploded prematurely inside Gaza.
UN Mideast envoy Robert Serry appealed for calm in a statement, saying he is “worried” tensions could threaten the informal truce.
Ihab Ghussein, the Hamas government spokesman, accused Israel of using the airstrikes to “divert the attention” from unrest in Israeli prisons. “They think that through escalation on Gaza front they can hide the truth,” he said, and urged Egypt, the guarantor of the cease-fire, to intervene.
The exchanges came as Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza were observing a general strike on Wednesday, with prisoners refusing food to mourn the death of a fellow inmate in an Israeli jail.
The death on Tuesday morning of Maisara Abu Hamdiyeh, a 63-year-old from the West Bank town of Hebron suffering from throat cancer, sparked outrage across the territories with the Palestinian leadership accusing Israel of medical negligence.
As news of his death spread, disturbances broke out among Palestinian prisoners in at least four Israeli jails and stone-throwing clashes erupted in Hebron, Abu Hamdiyeh’s hometown, that continued on Wednesday.
As a show of mourning, schools, shops and offices were closed in Hebron at the start of what officials said would be a three-day general strike, as stone-throwing youths clashed with the army in the city centre for the second day running, an AFP correspondent said.
A full strike was also being observed in the northern West Bank city of Nablus where thousands of demonstrators gathered in the city centre for a mass rally, another correspondent said.
A strike was likewise being observed in annexed east Jerusalem ahead of the arrival of Abu Hamdiyeh’s body at Abu Dis medical centre where it was to undergo a Palestinian autopsy on Wednesday afternoon ahead of a funeral in Hebron on Thursday.
As his body was taken out of the Palestinian ambulance wrapped in the red, white, black and green of the national flag, people began shooting in the air and shouting: “Allahu Akbar!”
In Ramallah and the Gaza Strip, the strike was being partially observed, other correspondents said.
Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinian prisoners refused their breakfast at the start of a one-day hunger strike in protest over Abu Hamdiyeh’s death, an Israel Prisons Service spokeswoman said.
“4,600 prisoners refused their breakfast this morning in a protest after the death of a prisoner yesterday,” Sivan Weizman told AFP, the figure representing the entire Palestinian prison population.