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Israel launches counterattacks in Gaza amid soaring tensions

Palestinian factions launch biggest assault in years amid soaring frustration over crippling 12-year Israeli siege.

Israeli soldiers

Just hours after the Israeli strikes on Gaza, sirens were heard in southern Israel, the Israeli Haaretz daily reported. Israeli forces said on Twitter that it had intercepted "several launches". 

"No country in the world would or should accept such threats to its civilian population. Neither do we," Emmanuel Nahshon, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, wrote on Twitter.

Gaza has been under a devastating Israeli-imposed blockade for the past 12 years, severely restricting access to everyday essentials and materials needed to maintain infrastructure.

On Tuesday, a group of Palestinians set sail from Gaza in an attempt to breach Israel's naval blockade by boat.

The vessel, carrying patients needing medical care, students and job-seeking university graduates, was later captured by Israeli warships. 

'Zionist aggression'

The latest tensions come a day after Israeli troops killed a Palestinian who allegedly approached Gaza's border with Israel, and two days after Israeli tank fire killed three people in an attack on a military observation post belonging to Islamic Jihad fighters.

An Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza said on Tuesday that "as long as there is occupation, resistance is a legitimate right for the Palestinian people".

"Israel keeps up with its aggression, we stick to the two options: popular protests and resistance responding to the Zionist aggression," said Khaled al-Batsh.

'Critical hours'

More than two million Palestinians are packed into the Gaza Strip, a narrow coastal enclave.

Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but, citing security concerns, maintains tight control of its land and sea borders, which has reduced its economy to a state of collapse.

Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled since 2014 and Israeli settlements in occupied territory Palestinians seek for a state have expanded.

Gaza experienced its most significant conflict in 2014, when at least 2,251 Palestinians, most of whom were civilians, were killed. At least 66 Israeli soldiers and six civilians were also killed. 

Whether the current escalation will mean a return to war for Gaza depends on "the Israeli side", Mukhaimer Abu Saada, political science professor at Gaza's Al Azhar University, said. 

"If this Israeli retaliation will result in further death and bloodshed among the Palestinian people I think the Palestinian resistance groups will have no choice but to respond back to Israel," he added.

"The coming hours and days are very critical and it will definitely decide whether we are approaching another military confrontation between Israel and Gaza."

The UN Security Council is expected to meet on Wednesday following a request by the United States for an urgent meeting.

"The Security Council should be outraged and respond to this latest bout of violence directed at innocent Israeli civilians," US ambassador Nikki Haley said.


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