Israel and Hamas were locked in one of the bloodiest rounds of fighting since the 2014 Gaza War on Sunday night as civilian casualties mounted on both sides and Israeli forces massed for a possible ground offensive.
Four civilians were killed in southern Israel on Sunday after Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired a barrage of more than 600 rockets, missiles and mortars into the areas around Gaza.
In Gaza, the Palestinian death toll rose to 23. Among the victims were at least two pregnant Palestinian women and two babies, according to the Hamas health ministry. Israel and Hamas each blamed each other for one of the women’s deaths.
Israel carried out a wave of airstrikes against militant targets in Gaza and its warplanes tracked down and killed a Hamas operative in its first targeted assassination in several years.
With no end in sight to the fighting, both Israel and the Palestinian armed factions warned that the situation could escalate into a full-scale war.
Israeli tanks deployed to the Gaza border in preparation for a possible ground invasion of the strip, the IDF said. Islamic Jihad said it was prepared to raise its rocket attacks to “a level that could lead to war”.
However, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a statement late on Sunday that the militant group was "not interested in a new war."
He signalled readiness to "return to the state of calm" if Israel stopped its attacks "and immediately starts implementing understandings about a dignified life."
US President Donald Trump assured Israel it had Washington's full support amid the escalation.
"Once again, Israel faces a barrage of deadly rocket attacks by terrorist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. We support Israel 100% in its defence of its citizens," Mr Trump tweeted.
....To the Gazan people — these terrorist acts against Israel will bring you nothing but more misery. END the violence and work towards peace - it can happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 6, 2019
"To the Gazan people - these terrorist acts against Israel will bring you nothing but more misery. END the violence and work towards peace - it can happen!"
The intense fighting flared as Palestinians prepared for the start of the Islamic holy moth of Ramadan while Israelis were getting ready to welcome thousands of tourists to Tel Aviv for the Eurovision song contest on May 14.
The Hamas health ministry said two pregnant woman - Falestine Abu A’rar, 37, and Amani Al-Madhoun, 33 - were killed in separate Israeli airstrikes 24 hours apart.
However, Israel said its intelligence showed Ms Abu A’rar had in fact been killed a Palestinian rocket which misfired and crashed inside Gaza on Saturday. A one-year-old baby girl was killed alongside her.
Late on Sunday, an Israeli airstrike hit an apartment building in northern Gaza, killing a couple in their early 30s and their four-month-old daughter. A 12-year-old boy was also killed in northern Gaza.
In a sign of the escalating situation, Israel carried out its first targeted assassination in Gaza for several years. Israeli aircraft tracked Hamid Abdul Khudri, a Hamas operative, as he drove through Gaza City before blowing up his Toyota SUV with a missile strike.
The IDF said Khudri was a financier who transferred money from Iran to both Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Hamas confirmed in a statement that Khudri was a member of the al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Islamist group.
Israel warned that it was prepared to carry out more such assassinations against Hamas leaders if the bombardment did not stop. “We have similar files on many other terrorists in Gaza,” said Lt Col Jonathan Conricus, an IDF spokesman.
Three civilians were killed in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon by rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. A fourth civilian died when militants struck a car with an anti-tank missile as it drove on the motorway.
Israel and Hamas have fought three bloody wars in Gaza since 2008. Several rounds of fighting in recent months have been calmed when Egypt and the UN stepped in to broker a ceasefire.
Under the terms of the ceasefire, Hamas agreed not to carry out attacks while Israel said it would ease part of the crushing economic blockade it has imposed on Gaza since 2007.
Hamas has grown frustrated at what it says is Israel’s failure to implement the agreements. A spokesman for the groups said Israel needed to “commit to the understandings and implement them without delay”.
Israel said the latest round of violence was sparked when Islamic Jihad snipers wounded two Israeli soldiers on Friday afternoon. The IDF said Islamic Jihad, which fights alongside Hamas but occasionally chafes under the larger group’s leadership, was trying to destabilise the region.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said he had ordered the IDF to continue with “massive attacks” against militant groups inside Gaza. “Hamas bears the responsibility not only for its own attacks and actions but also for the actions of Islamic Jihad, and it is paying a very heavy price for this.”
The IDF moved one tank brigade to the Gaza border in preparation for a possible ground assault inside the strip. An infantry brigade was also being called up while another infantry brigade was put on standby.
Palestinian families huddled together in their homes as Israeli warplanes struck more than 250 targets inside Gaza. Israelis fled to bomb shelters as the sky filled with smoke from rockets and interceptor missiles.
The Iron Dome missile defence system intercepted around 150 rockets fired into Israel, the IDF said. Of the 600 total rockets fired only 35 fell into Israeli cities and towns, according to the IDF. The rest were intercepted or fell into open fields.