Israel has launched an intense wave of strikes across the Gaza Strip after one of its soldiers was killed in gunfire along the border, raising fears of renewed conflict.
Explosions were seen across the coastal enclave on Friday evening and Israel said three rockets had been fired at its territory, two of which were intercepted. The military wing of Hamas, which has fought three wars with Israel since 2009, said three of its fighters were killed in the strikes.
The Israeli Defence Force did not name the soldier, but said he had been hit by Palestinian gunfire. He was the first Israeli combatant to been killed in the area since the last full-scale conflict with Gaza’s rulers, Hamas, in 2014.
“A terrorist squad shot at [Israel Defence Forces] troops and the IDF soldier was severely injured – he later succumbed to his wounds,” the military said in a statement. “His family has been notified. The IDF expresses its heartfelt condolences, and will continue to support the family.”
It said its aircraft and fighter jets had attacked 40 military targets across Gaza that included Hamas battalion headquarters, a drone warehouse, aerial defence systems, and observation posts. “The strikes are still ongoing,” the IDF said.
A fourth Palestinian was shot dead at protests by the perimeter fence, according to Gaza’s health ministry. The protests were part of a months-long movement that residents had hoped would draw attention to the Israeli blockade.
Nearly 150 Palestinians have been killed since the demonstrations began on 30 March, most of them shot by Israeli snipers. Others have been killed by Israeli air strikes or by tank fire. Thousands have been injured.
Israel accuses Hamas of hijacking the rallies to carry out attacks. The two sides have traded rocket and mortar fire for airstrikes during the past few weeks.
Last weekend saw the most severe exchange of fire in Gaza since a 2014 war. Two Palestinian teenagers were killed and about 200 rockets and mortars were fired at Israel from Gaza. Four Israelis were wounded when a projectile hit a house.
In recent days, the Israeli army has started to open fire at groups attempting to launch kites attached to cans of petrol that have torched close to 3,000 hectares (7,410 acres) of Israeli fields. Israel has tightened its blockade, closing the only goods crossing.
The United Nations envoy for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, said on Twitter that “everyone in Gaza needs to step back from the brink”.
The transfers come under a surrender deal agreed this week between Russia and Syrian rebels in Quneitra province that will see the sensitive zone on the Israeli border fall back under regime control.