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A plume of smoke rises above buildings during an Israeli strike on Gaza City, on May 10, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

GAZA CITY: Palestinian militants fired hundreds of rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel on Wednesday, while Israel pressed ahead with a series of airstrikes that have killed 21 Palestinians, including three senior militants and at least 10 civilians.

The rocket fire set off air-raid sirens throughout southern Israel and as far away as Tel Aviv, on the Mediterranean Sea, 80km (50 miles) away. Residents had been bracing for an attack since Israel launched its first airstrikes early Tuesday.

It was the heaviest fighting between the sides in months, pushing the region closer toward a full-blown war. But in signs that both sides were trying to show restraint, Israel avoided attacks on the ruling Hamas militant group, targeting only the smaller and more militant Islamic Jihad faction. Hamas, meanwhile, appeared to remain on the sidelines.

Israel and Hamas have fought four wars since the Islamic militant group took control of Gaza in 2007.

As rockets streaked through the sky, Israeli TV stations showed air defence systems intercepting rockets above the skies of Tel Aviv. In the nearby suburb of Ramat Gan, people lay face-down on the ground as they took cover during one attack.

The Israeli military said that for the first time, an air-defence system known as David’s Sling intercepted a rocket. The system, developed with the US, is meant to intercept medium-range threats and is part of a multi-layered air defence that also includes the better-known Iron Dome anti-rocket system.

In a move that could further raise tensions, Israeli police said they would permit a Jewish ultranationalist parade to take place next week. The parade, meant to celebrate Israel’s capture of east Jerusalem and its Jewish holy sites, marches through the heart of the Old City’s Muslim Quarter and often leads to friction with local Palestinians.

270 rockets fired

As air raid sirens continued to wail, Israeli media said at least 270 rockets had been fired, with over 200 crossing the border and three crashing into Israeli territory. Israeli rescuers said two people were hurt running for shelter, and local officials said an empty home in the southern town of Sderot was struck.

The army said that schools would remain closed and restrictions on large gatherings would remain in place in southern Israel until at least Friday.

Eden Avramov, a 26-year-old resident of the southern Israeli town of Sderot, described the 24 hours since Israel launched airstrikes on Gaza as terrifying. “We are all traumatized from this routine — the waiting, the booms, the alarms.”

Speaking from her home’s bomb shelter, she said she had mixed feelings about the Israeli military’s assault on Gaza. “I am happy to see that they’re responding to last week’s bombs, it feels like they care,” she said. “I just don’t want to see anyone get hurt, here or on the other side.”

Children play as people wait in a bomb shelter as sirens sound following rockets launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, in Ashkelon, southern Israel, May 10, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

Israeli aircraft hit targets in Gaza for the second straight day, killing at least five Palestinians. The Israeli military said its warplanes targeted 40 rocket launchers across the enclave.

A 10-year-old Palestinian girl named Layan Mdoukh was killed in a blast at her home in Gaza City in unclear circumstances on Wednesday. The Israeli military did not immediately offer comment on her death.

Also on Wednesday, the army said an airstrike targeted militants traveling to a rocket launcher site in southern Gaza Strip, killing two people, according to medics. A few hours later, another airstrike killed a Palestinian in northern Gaza and two Palestinians in the southern city of Rafah. The secular leftist group known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed four of the dead as militants.

The initial Israeli airstrikes on Tuesday that set off the exchange of fire killed three senior Islamic Jihad militants and at least 10 civilians — most of them women and children. The Israeli military has said its attacks were focused on Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant infrastructure in the coastal enclave.

It also remained unclear whether two Palestinians killed in a separate airstrike late Tuesday were militants or civilians. Israel has claimed the men were preparing to fire anti-tank missiles.

The Israeli military had instructed residents of southern Israel to remain near bomb shelters, and schools were still closed for a second day as a precaution against rocket attacks.

Israel says the airstrikes are a response to a barrage of rocket fire launched last week by Islamic Jihad in response to the death of one of its members from a hunger strike while in Israeli custody.

Meanwhile, Israeli police said they would allow the annual flag-waving march marking “Jerusalem Day” to take place along its traditional route through a main Palestinian thoroughfare in the Old City on Thursday next week. The decision could raise the risk of further violence.

Thousands of Israeli nationalists take part each year, with some chanting racist slogans, as they walk across the Old City to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in the Jewish Quarter. Last year’s march was marked by violence, and in 2021, the march helped trigger a rocket attack on Jerusalem and 11-day war with Hamas.

Earlier on Wednesday, the military said that Palestinian gunmen opened fire at troops in the Palestinian town of Qabatiya in the northern West Bank during an army raid. Troops returned fire, killing the two men, and confiscated their firearms, it said.

The Palestinian Health Ministry identified the slain men as Ahmed Assaf, 19, and Rani Qatanat, 24. Islamic Jihad later claimed the two men as its members.