JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli aircraft and a tank struck a vehicle belonging to an operative of the Islamist Hamas faction that dominates the Gaza Strip, as militants launched rockets into Israel, the Israeli military said on Wednesday.
Local residents in the Nusseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip said nobody had been hurt when the car exploded in a ball of flames. A picture posted on social media showed a fireball in an alleyway said to be the car that had been hit.
A statement by the Israeli military said the car had belonged to a militant “heavily involved in launching arson and explosive balloons from the Gaza Strip into Israel”. Two Hamas observation posts were also hit, it added.
In recent weeks, Palestinians have sent kites and helium-filled balloons dangling coal embers or burning rags across the Gaza border to set fire to arid farmland and forests, others have carried small explosive devices in a new tactic.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum in Gaza said Israel’s targeting of the car had “merited a quick response” in the firing of the rockets and showed armed factions were ready to “defend our people and protect their interests.”
Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile interceptor was launched at three out of the 13 rockets that militants had fired, an army spokeswoman said.
No Israeli casualties and no damage were reported in Israel after air-raid sirens sounded in communities around the Gaza Strip in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday.
The ratcheting up of tensions in the Gaza Strip and pledges by Israel and Palestinian militants to continue to respond to any attacks against them held the potential for broader conflict.
Israel has accused Hamas of stoking violence in an attempt to deflect domestic opinion from Gaza’s energy shortages and faltering economy.
Israel maintains a naval blockade of Gaza and tight restrictions on the movement of people and goods at its land borders. Egypt has also kept its own Gaza frontier largely closed. Both countries cite security concerns for the measures, which have deepened economic hardship.
At least 130 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops during mass demonstrations along the Gaza border since March 30.
Protesters are demanding a right of return to what is now Israel for those who fled or were forced to flee their homes in the war around its creation in 1948, and for millions of their descendants. Israel rules that out as demographic suicide.
Israel’s deadly tactics in confronting the weekly Friday protests have drawn international condemnation. But support has come from its main ally, the United States, which like Israel, has cast blame on Hamas.
The mass protests which drew tens of thousands of Gazans to the border area have subsided in the past few weeks.
Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Michael Perry