JERUSALEM – Palestinian militants in Gaza fired more than 50 mortar shells into Israel on Saturday, the heaviest barrage in two years, Israeli officials said, raising the prospect of a new Mideast flareup.
Also Saturday, Hamas police beat reporters and news photographers covering a rally in Gaza City, drawing condemnation from the Foreign Press Association.
Israel invaded Gaza two years ago to put a stop to daily rocket barrages by Gaza militants, and Saturday’s exchange showed how the conflict could quickly spiral out of control. Gaza’s Hamas rulers are thought to be trying to avoid another Israeli invasion, after the last one caused widespread damage, killed more than 1,400 and left the territory under blockade, but Hamas claimed responsibility for some of the mortar rounds.
A Hamas official was killed and four civilians were wounded when Israel hit back with tank fire and airstrikes, said Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Adham Abu Salmia.
Israeli police spokesman Tamir Avtabi said Gaza militants fired 54 mortar shells at Israeli border communities within 15 minutes. He said two Israeli civilians were lightly wounded by shrapnel, and residents were advised to stay at home or in bomb shelters.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he will file a complaint at the U.N. after Saturday’s unusually large barrage of rockets.
Footage broadcast on Israeli media showed homes pockmarked with large shrapnel holes from where shells exploded.
Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan said the shelling was in response to recent Israeli airstrikes that killed militants. He warned Israel “not to test Hamas’ response.”
Hamas displayed its control of Gaza in a violent manner Saturday, breaking up a demonstration favoring reconciliation between the Hamas government in Gaza and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas overran Gaza in 2007, leading to the split.
An Associated Press Television News cameraman was cornered by Hamas police and beaten with sticks. He was briefly detained and released unharmed. Other cameramen were beaten, and some had their equipment confiscated by Hamas.
Hamas also raided offices of the Reuters news agency, CNN and Japanese channel NHK in Gaza.
The violence overshadowed a broadcast Saturday of an Abbas interview on an Israeli TV station. He told Channel 2 TV that he was “more determined than ever to reach a (peace) solution with Israel.” Referring to reconciliation efforts with Hamas, he said, “Hamas has committed terrible crimes, but they are still part of the Palestinian people.”