JERUSALEM: Israeli jets today pounded targets in the Gaza strip, killing at least nine Palestinian militants after rockets were fired at southern Israel, as Islamist militant group Hamas vowed revenge for the assault.
The Israel Air Force (IAF) struck 14 targets early this morning in two waves of airstrikes leading to nine deaths, Palestinian medics said.
The first round of airstrikes targeted nine Hamas bases in Gaza and the second launched a few hours later hit five underground rocket launchers, Israeli security sources said.
The IAF last night also struck a cell in central Gaza which was in the process of carrying out a rocket attack on Israel, killing two Palestinian militants, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said.
Hamas said most of the strikes were launched at a gathering point of its members in Gaza's southern-most town of Rafah near the Egyptian border.
After nine militants were killed, Hamas vowed revenge on Israeli forces.
"This is a serious escalation and the enemy will pay the price," Sami Abu Zuhri, the Hamas spokesman in Gaza, posted a warning message overnight on his Facebook page.
"Nine Hamas fighters were killed and four people were wounded in the attacks," the group's armed wing 'Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades' said in a statement.
However, local media reports said two of the nine killed belonged to Islamic Jihad's military wing.
Six members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades were reportedly killed in a tunnel in Rafah while a seventh was killed nearby.
It remained unclear whether the tunnel was used for smuggling or to launch an attack against Israel.
Security sources in Israel said it was possible that the Palestinians who were killed in the tunnel were not hit as a direct result of the IAF attacks.
"The six Hamas terrorists could have been killed from the collapse of a terror tunnel the IAF attacked on Saturday. It is possible that the Hamas operatives sought to fix the tunnel overnight and it collapsed on top of them," they said.
A barrage of rocket fire hit southern Israel yesterday amid calls from the right-wing parties in the Israeli government for a wide-scale operation in Gaza.
The Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council area was battered with ten rockets from Gaza with the areas residents instructed by the army to remain in fortified shelters.
Seven rockets hit the Eshkol Regional Council area, one of which started a brush fire, and an additional two rockets landed in open territory in the Ashkelon Coast Council region.
At least 150 rockets have landed in Israeli territory since June 14 when the West Bank operation to find three Israeli teens kidnapped and murdered by Hamas commenced, the IDF said yesterday.
An Israeli soldier was wounded by a shrapnel from a projectile in the Eshkol region on Saturday.
Israel has so far retaliated in a limited response, targeting Palestinian militant bases but Israel's Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman have been constantly urging for a broad operation in the Gaza strip.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, yesterday told his cabinet that Israel must act "with composure and responsibly" and not with "militancy or rashness."
Angry demonstrations and pitched battles between Israeli Arabs and Israeli police across the north and in east Jerusalem over the killing of a Palestinian teenager in what the police suspects could have been a revenge attack is believed by many to be the reason behind Netanyahu's stance.
Police remained on high alert even today with security posted in front of schools and kindergartens in areas close to Arab dominated neighbourhoods.
Meanwhile, IDF Chief of Staff Lt General Benny Gantz visited the northern Gaza border region on Saturday and met with military forces operating in the sector.
Gantz spoke with infantry and tank unit commanders and examined preparations under way for a possible escalation.
He said Hamas bears responsibility for rocket fire, and the IDF is prepared to provide any necessary response to ensure residents of the South can lead routine lives.
"We'll know how to respond with great force if quiet isn't returned to the area," he warned.