Palestinian militants attacked a major city in southern Israel with rocket fire on Friday, a serious escalation of widening violence that has all but buried a five-month-old truce.
Hamas fighters launched rocket barrages at Ashkelon, 11 miles north of Gaza, causing panic but no casualties. They also unleashed rockets at nearby Sderot, where rescue services said one person was lightly wounded by shrapnel. Several rockets hit open areas.
The Israeli military warned residents of communities near Gaza to remain in their homes, and police and rescue services went on high alert in preparation for more attacks.
Friday's barrages followed an earlier strike by Israeli aircraft targeting militants firing rockets in northern Gaza. Dr. Moaiya Hassanain of Gaza's Health Ministry said two gunmen were moderately wounded.
The fighting was the latest in a weeklong cycle of violence that has threatened to unravel a truce reached in June. Still, leaders in Israel and Gaza's Hamas government said they hoped the calm would be restored.
“We will keep protecting our soldiers and people and keep acting against attempts to interrupt the cease-fire, but if the other side will want or wish to keep the cease-fire alive, we'll consider it seriously,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert held an emergency meeting of his Security Cabinet on Friday and said his government will continue to put pressure on Hamas until ongoing rocket barrages on southern Israel are halted.
Olmert called the attacks a “fundamental violation” of the cease-fire.
He said Israel will continue to step up pressure on Hamas by keeping border crossings closed and through other unspecified means. That could be a reference to further Israeli military action in Gaza.
In response to the renewed rocket fire, Israel sealed its border crossings with Gaza, halting shipments of food aid and fuel.
The military said Palestinians launched at least four Grad-type Katyusha rockets into Ashkelon. The Katyushas are believed to be smuggled into Gaza, and have longer ranges than the crude homegrown rockets usually fired by militants.
With 120,000 residents, Ashkelon is by far the biggest Israeli town in rocket range. In the past, Israel has responded harshly to attacks on the city.
Hamas claimed responsibility for the rocket fire, and said it fired deep into Israel to demonstrate the price if the truce collapsed.
“The resistance … is able to hit the Zionist depth,” said Hamas lawmaker Mushir al-Masri.
The Egyptian-mediated truce has largely halted rocket attacks and reprisals.
The cease-fire, however, began to disintegrate last week when Israeli forces entered Gaza to try to destroy what the military said was a tunnel dug by militants.
Eleven militants have been killed in more than a week of fighting, and some 140 rockets and mortars have been fired from Gaza.