Deadly fighting has erupted between Israel and Gaza, sparking fears of a new war, the day after seven Palestinians and a senior ranking Israeli officer were killed in a firefight during a botched Israeli raid in the south of the Strip.
Monday evening Israeli aircraft and tanks pounded over 70 targets in the besieged enclave including Hamas's Al-Aqsa television building, killing at least three Palestinians, two of whom were militants. The retaliatory strikes came as Gaza fighters pummelled southern Israel with over 300 rockets, injuring at least 10 Israelis. Earlier in the afternoon anti-tank fire from Gaza hit a bus seriously wounding a 19-year-old Israeli soldier who is in a critical condition.
The sudden flare-up in violence came after Israel confirmed an Israeli soldier killed Sunday night during a special forces raid in Gaza was the highest ranking Israeli officer to die in the besieged enclave since the 2014 war.
The Israelis identified the slain officer as Lieutenant-Colonel “M”, Israeli media said he was a 41-year-old father-of-two from North Israel. His funeral was held on Monday.
Officials in Hamas, the militant group that runs the besieged strip, described Israel's Sunday night mission as a “botched intelligence raid” and confirmed two of its commanders had been killed. On Monday the group's armed wing the Qassam Brigades vowed to respond.
"The joint command of Palestinian factions announce the beginning of bombardment of the enemy's settlements with scores of rockets," the fighters said shorty before launching a volley of rockets.
The Israeli army, meanwhile, promised a tough response saying Hamas will "bear the consequences for its actions".
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said that they had boosted forces near the Gaza border with additional infantry troops, defensive systems and intelligence units.
He said Hamas was "bringing destruction upon the Gaza Strip."
As the violence escalated the United Nations said it was working with Egypt "to ensure that Gaza steps back from the brink."
The office of the UN's Middle East envoy, Nickolay Mladenov, called for an end to rocket fire, and restraint "by all."
The renewed fighting threatens to scupper a tentative Egypt-brokered peace deal between Israel and Gaza that was making some headway in recent weeks.
Just hours before Sunday's disastrous raid, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had given a lengthy speech in Paris defending Israeli’s decision to allow Qatar to deliver $15 million to Hamas to pay salaries. In exchange, Hamas scaled back its weekly demonstrations along the Israeli border.
Both sides had been pushed to the brink of war this summer after tens of thousands of Gaza residents have marched towards Israel every Friday since March demanding the right to return to their ancestral lands, which they were forced from or fled during the 1948 conflict which surrounded the creation of Israel. Some have launched incendiary kites and balloons tied with explosives at southern Israeli lands.
The Israeli military responded with live fire, killing more than 218 Palestinians. Facing mounting criticism from aid groups and the United Nations, Israel defended its actions saying that protesters had been violent and attempted to break the border fences.
However, the last two weeks of Friday protests had been fairly quiet, as Hamas had apparently kept its promise to rein in the violence.
Hamas officials told The Independent they believed Sunday's incident to be a “botched top-level intelligence-gathering operation” by the Israeli unit, which was operating two miles into Gaza in the eastern areas of Khan Younis when they encountered Hamas fighters at a checkpoint.
In the ensuing firefight, six Palestinians including two regional Hamas commanders, named as Nour Baraka and his deputy Mohammad Al-Qarra, were killed alongside the Israeli officer. Residents of Khan Younis reported a wave of Israeli airstrikes shortly after the killings. Hamas sources said the sorties "destroyed evidence" of the mission and provided cover to allow the Israelis to return home.
Speaking to The Independent, the Israeli army declined to elaborate on the nature of Sunday's mission or whether it had gone wrong.
They did, however, deny earlier reports that the operation was intended to kill or abduct militants in Gaza and instead said it was intended “to strengthen Israeli security”.
Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot, Chief of the General Staff called it a "very meaningful operation to Israel's security" and said Israeli forces "fought a brave battle calmly and heroically.”
Another senior Hamas official, briefed on the incident, told The Independent that the vehicle used by the Israeli forces was a civilian car, likely sourced in Gaza, that was fitted out with high-tech surveillance equipment pointing to a "top-level intelligence-gathering operation".
“It would not be in their interests to kidnap Nour Baraka, he is not senior enough. They also wouldn’t risk the lives of high-ranking officers to assassinate him like that – they could take him out with a drone strike,” the Hamas source said.
“It was clear someone from the Palestinian side had helped them, and the Volkswagen had been prepared especially before the special forces entered Gaza. [The Israelis] bombed Khan Younis to provide cover but also to erase the leads,” he claimed.
The Israeli military declined to comment on these revelations. The army requested that the press and the public "refrain from publishing additional information" regarding Sunday's incident, directing them to official army statements.
Many, however, have questioned the timing of the raid given that it occurred as both sides were on the cusp of signing a long-term ceasefire deal.
Amos Harel, an Israeli correspondent for left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, noted that the incident came just hours after Prime Minister Netanyahu explained in a lengthy and “fairly convincing speech” about why he thought every effort should be expended to reach an agreement in Gaza and not go to war. Harel also speculated whether it was an intelligence-gathering operation related to Hamas’s military infrastructure which went wrong.
“It is indeed hard to believe that under these circumstances, the political echelon would approve an assassination of a medium-ranked operative in the Hamas military wing, when the gain of such an operation is unclear. Netanyahu is too invested in efforts to reach a deal with Hamas to enable such a move,” he wrote.
Netanyahu cut short a trip to Paris Sunday night and flew back to Israel after the incident.