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Deadly Israeli air strikes hammer besieged Gaza enclave

At least two teenagers killed, many Palestinians wounded in what Israel leader Netanyahu calls 'hardest blow' since 2014
Israeli army says Saturday's air strikes hit more than 40 targets (Reuters)

Israeli air strikes killed two teenagers and wounded at least 14 other Palestinians across the besieged Gaza Strip, health officials in Gaza said, in what the Israeli military described as one of its widest operations since 2014.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed late Saturday that Israel had inflicted its "hardest blow" on Hamas since the 2014 war with its wave of air strikes and threatened to intensify them if necessary.

The two dead Palestinians were identified by Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra as Amir al-Nimra, 15, and Luay Kahil, 16, who were both hit by shrapnel from air strikes in the Gaza City neighbourhood of Katiba.

The ministry stated on Sunday morning that a Palestinian father and son - identified as Ahmad Mansour Hassan, 35, and Luay Ahmad Hassan, 13 - had been killed in Gaza City, although it did not immediately specify whether it was as a result of Israeli military action.

Al-Qidra added that ambulances and facilities belonging to the Health Ministry had been heavily damaged by the air strikes in Katiba.

A building under construction on Katiba Square was targeted by at least four missiles from F-16 fighter jets, locals told Middle East Eye.

Amir and Luay, close friends who were killed on Saturday in Israeli attack on Gaza (MEE/screengrab)
While the building was uninhabited, the central Gaza City square is a public space where families and children are known to gather.

“I was driving my taxi on the main street next to the (Katiba) building, when suddenly heavy missiles hit the building,” Iyad Hamed told MEE from a hospital where he was being treated after the attack. “The shrapnel scattered onto us, residents and pedestrians in the area.

“We call upon the Palestinian resistance to respond harshly to this Israeli arrogance and barbarism in order to put an end to these violations,” Hamed added.

Iyad Hamed, center, was wounded by Israeli air strike in Gaza City on Saturday (MEE/Mohammed Asad)

Earlier on Saturday, Israel said it had launched air strikes targeting Hamas facilities in Gaza, a day after Israeli forces shot and killed two Palestinians demonstrating near the fence separating the enclave from Israel.

Netanyahu said later in a video statement: "In consultation with the minister of defence, the (military) chief of staff and the top security command of the state of Israel, we have decided on strong action against Hamas terrorism."

"The (military) has struck Hamas with the hardest blow since Operation Protective Edge and we will increase the strength of our attacks as necessary," he added, referring to Israel's devastating 2014 military operation in the Gaza Strip.

Israel's military said in statements posted on Twitter that Israeli fighter jets had struck two "Hamas terror tunnels" - one in southern Gaza and one in the north - as well as other infrastructure across the coastal territory early on Saturday.

It said targets included "complexes used to prepare arson terror attacks and a Hamas terror training facility," and that the strikes were carried out "in response to the terror acts instigated during the violent riots that took place along the security fence".

The Israeli military said it struck more than 40 targets within several compounds, in what it described as one of its biggest operations since the devastating 2014 war.

According to witnesses in Gaza, Saturday morning's air strikes damaged Hamas military infrastructure, although no such information had emerged on the strikes occuring on Saturday evening.

The Israeli military said Gaza fighters had fired more than 50 mortar bombs and rockets towards Israel, setting off sirens and sending Israelis to their shelters. Haaretz reported that 16 rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system.

Three Israelis were hospitalised as a result of the barrage, an Israeli police spokesman said. Haaretz reported that four Israelis were lightly wounded after a rocket fired from Gaza struck their home in the southern city of Sderot.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum claimed responsibility for the mortar fire on Israel earlier on Saturday, adding that it was carried out "in response to the Israeli air strikes".

"The protection and the defence of our people is a national duty and a strategic choice," Barhoum said.

A Hamas spokesman told Haaretz that "the escalation and intensification of Israel's aggression will not dictate a new agenda," adding that it would not "stop the March of Return. Resistance forces will not let Israel continue attacking the Palestinian people, and we will be ready to respond."

A Palestinian official, who spoke to the Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity, said Egypt and other international players were in contact with Israel and Gaza trying to restore calm. There was no immediate comment from officials in Cairo.

Earlier this week, Israel shut down Kerem Shalom, the Gaza Strip’s only commercial crossing, tightening the siege on the Palestinian enclave as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ominously warned of "additional steps".

'No innocent people in Gaza' says Israeli defence minister
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Israeli authorities have blamed Hamas for the Great March of Return, an allegation that the campaign's organisers have rejected, and accused the ruling party in Gaza of being behind incendiary kites flown across the security fence that have sparked fires in Israel.

Palestinians in Gaza have been participating in the Great March of Return since 30 March, calling for an end to the 11-year Israeli-led blockade on Gaza and for Palestinian refugees' right of return to the lands that their families fled during the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

Since protests began along the fence at that time, at least 139 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire within the scope of demonstrations, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

No Israelis have been killed. However, the Israeli army said one soldier was wounded by a grenade on Friday.

Meanwhile, the Gaza health ministry said that 220 Palestinians were hurt in Friday's protests near the Gaza fence, in addition to Othman Rami Hales, 15, and Mohammed Nasser Shurrab, 20, who were shot dead.

Additional reporting in Gaza by Mohammed Asad.

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