Israel targets Islamic Jihad in Gaza, Syria after Palestinian militants fire rockets for second day

JERUSALEM — Israeli military jets targeted sites in Gaza linked to Palestinian Islamic Jihad for a second day Monday, as militants from the group fired more than 72 rockets into Israeli territory.

Israel also struck Islamic Jihad sites in Syria early Monday, resulting in at least two deaths, according to a statement by the militant group.

The exchange came after a Palestinian news agency posted graphic footage of an Israeli army bulldozer dragging the body of a Palestinian man who Israel said was part of a “terror squad” and was killed as he placed an explosive device along the Israel-Gaza border fence. One of the rockets launched from Gaza on Monday damaged playground equipment in the town of Sderot. There were no reports of injuries on the Israeli side. Four Palestinians were injured by Israeli strikes in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.

The sudden flare-up followed weeks of relative quiet as Egypt attempts to broker a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamist faction that rules the Gaza Strip. Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in the past decade, but there have been many other outbursts of violence.

Israeli military officials closed schools, roads and a beach in communities near Gaza on Monday and asked residents not to gather inside in groups of more than 300.

The latest clash comes a week before Israelis return to the polls for a third general election in less than a year. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the long-running Gaza situation came under sharp criticism over the weekend.

Netanyahu threatened Gaza militants with a “crushing blow” if the rocket attacks didn’t stop. But Defense Minister Naftali Bennett indicated in a television interview Monday that a major operation was unlikely before next week’s election.

Israel immediately sealed the crossing in and out of Gaza until further notice, suspended a program that allows Palestinian workers to enter Israel and reduced the area where Gazan fishermen are allowed to operate to six miles offshore.

Most of the projectiles fired from Gaza were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome aerial defense system. Videos shared on social media showed civilians in the cities of Ashkelon and Sderot crouching for cover as warning sirens blared in most of the Israeli communities that surround Gaza.

Death toll rises as Gaza militants fire hundreds of rockets into Israel, which responds with airstrikes

Islamic Jihad asserted responsibility for the rocket fire, saying it was in response to the killing of Mohammed al-Naem, a member of Islamic Jihad, the second-largest militant faction in Gaza after Hamas. In addition to targeting dozens of sites in Gaza overnight, the Israeli military said it struck multiple Islamic Jihad facilities in Syria. The sites south of Damascus included weapons and rocket fuel production areas related to the group’s activities in both Gaza and Syria.

Emotions in Gaza were high after the earlier video clip, filmed by a photographer working with the West Bank-based news agency al-Hadath, showed the Israeli military bulldozer scooping up the body of a man, later identified as Naem. An army tank is seen accompanying the bulldozer in the video, which was shared widely on social media.

Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad issued statements condemning Israel’s actions and swore revenge. Abu Hamza, a spokesman for the group’s armed wing, the al-Quds Brigades, said Israeli military vehicles had entered Gaza, and he warned that there would be consequences.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Naem was “defenseless” and was killed deliberately.

“The abuse of his body right before the eyes of the entire world is a heinous crime that can be added to the other crimes against our people,” Barhoum said.

The video also drew criticism inside Israel. Human rights groups called on the military to investigate the incident.

Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, said in a letter to the army’s legal representative that the actions “depicted in the video were viewed as war crimes and blatant violations of international criminal law, and international human rights and humanitarian law.”

Bennett, the defense minister, defended the army’s actions, saying on Twitter that it “killed a terrorist and collected his body.”

“This is how it should be done, and this is how it will be done,” he wrote.

Cross-border salvos resume between Israel and Islamic Jihad in second day of Gaza clashes

Some far-right leaders, including Bennett before he became defense minister, have called for Israel to respond with greater force to rocket fire and other violence from Gaza. There has been fierce criticism of what appears to be an attempt by Netanyahu to reach a long-term understanding with Hamas.

On Saturday, Avigdor Liberman, Israel’s hawkish former defense minister, revealed that Netanyahu had sent the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency to Doha, Qatar, this month to ask the Persian Gulf state to continue sending emergency funds to the impoverished Gaza Strip. And last week, Israel announced steps to increase the number of entry permits for day laborers from Gaza and enlarge the fishing zone for Palestinians.

Balousha reported from Gaza City. Steve Hendrix in Jerusalem contributed to this report.