Israeli warplanes carried out intense strikes against Hamas in Gaza on Monday night after a rocket attack wounded several members of a British-Israeli family, including two infants, and destroyed their house.
Israeli jets bombed the offices of Hamas’ leader and several other facilities in what a military spokesman said was just "the beginning” of a major operation against the Islamist militant group.
There were no immediate reports of casualties in Gaza but Hamas vowed to “retaliate immediately and forcefully”, raising fears that the two sides could be hurtling back towards a full-blown conflict.
Palestinian factions reportedly began firing rockets into southern Israel on Monday night as Israeli aircraft continued their raids in Gaza.
However, Hamas said late on Monday that Egypt had brokered a ceasefire to end the fighting. Hamas authorities said schools and government buildings would be open as usual on Tuesday.
Monday's escalation was sparked by a long-range rocket fired by Hamas from Gaza towards the town of Mishmeret in central Israel at around 5.20am Monday morning, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) said.
The rocket hit the home of Robert and Susan Wolf, originally from London, who had their children and grandchildren staying with them. The family were woken by rocket sirens and escaped moments before the house was struck.
“If we hadn’t got to the bomb shelter in time I would be burying all my family,” Mr Wolf said. “We would all have been dead if we didn’t do what we were supposed to do.”
Seven people were wounded in the blast, including his wife, who suffered a shrapnel wound to the head, and his six-month-old granddaughter who lightly injured. None of the injuries are life-threatening, Israeli authorities said.
The family’s two dogs were killed in the blast, neighbours said, while the home was almost completely destroyed.
The attack in Mishmeret came just a week after rockets were fired at Tel Aviv for the first time since 2014. Israel carried out a limited round of strikes in response. However, Monday’s attack was considered far more serious because it wounded Israeli civilians.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, was at the White House to watch Donald Trump sign an order formally recognising Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights
“Israel is responding forcefully to this wanton aggression,” Mr Netanyahu said. “I have a simple message to Israel’s enemies: we will do whatever we must do to defend our people and defend our state.”
Mr Netanyahu cut short his trip to Washington to take charge of the crisis. The prime minister, who is up for re-election on April 9, is under pressure from political opponents to launch large-scale strikes.
Israel’s military said it had bombed the Gaza City offices of Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas. The offices are believed to have been empty at the time.
Warplanes also destroyed buildings belonging to Hamas military intelligence branch and its internal security forces, the IDF said.
"We are just at the beginning," said General Ronen Manelis, an IDF spokesman. "A large attack is planned. I think that Hamas understands this is a significant strike following a serious incident, and ultimately, this is a price that Hamas has been due to pay for the past year."
The military wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad said in a joint statement that they intended to fight back against Israeli raids. “We will retaliate immediately and forcefully to every strike. The resistance can reach every Israeli target.”
At least one rocket was fired into Israel from Gaza while the airstrikes were unfolding, according to the IDF.
The group is under intense pressure within Gaza to raise living standards and deal with horrendous economic conditions in the strip, where unemployment is at around 50 per cent.
Anti-Hamas protesters took to the streets last week under the slogan “We Want To Live”. Hamas responded with a major crackdown and arrested dozens of people.
Egypt and the UN have been trying to broker a long-term deal which would see Hamas promise to stop attacks on Israel in return for Israel lifting its crushing 12-year blockade on Gaza.
However, the negotiations have yielded few results and Hamas is believed to be trying to inject fresh urgency into the talks by firing rockets while at the same time avoiding a full-blown war.