Gaza militants fire rocket barrage at southern Israel

A trail of smoke from rockets fired from Gaza towards Israel was seen above Gaza City (12 March 2014) A trail of smoke from rockets fired from Gaza towards Israel was seen above Gaza City

Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip have fired more than 30 rockets at southern Israel, Israeli officials say.

An Israeli military spokesman said eight hit urban civilian areas and that a number of others were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defence system.

It was the heaviest barrage since the November 2012 conflict in Gaza ended. Islamic Jihad said it fired the rockets.

Israeli warplanes responded by targeting Islamic Jihad positions.

The group said its attacks were in retaliation for Tuesday's killing of three of its militants in an earlier Israeli air strike.

"Our Mujahideen responded to the Zionist aggression by firing tens of rockets," they said in a statement.

'Heaviest attack since 2012'

The barrage began in the early evening. Dozens of rockets could be seen being fired from the southern outskirts of Gaza City, according to an eyewitness.

In southern Israel, sirens sounded and those in range were told to take shelter. One rocket landed near a library, another beside a petrol station.

It is the heaviest attack in the last two years - the number of rockets fired at Israel, from Gaza, has been falling.

Islamic Jihad said it carried out the attack in response to an Israeli raid on Tuesday which killed three of its fighters.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that Israel would respond "with great force" against anyone threatening its security.

The country's Iron Dome defence system intercepted at least three of the rockets. Israel's military responded with artillery fire, striking both the north and south of Gaza.

Speaking to the BBC, the group's spokesman added "The rocket fired today came in response to the occupation aggression against us and does not mean the collapse of the ceasefire agreement [with Israel]."

Another Gaza militant group, the Popular Resistance Committees, said they also fired several rockets.

Witnesses, including a photographer for the AFP news agency said that there were nine Israeli retaliatory strikes throughout the coastal strip on facilities operated by Islamic Jihad's military wing, the al-Quds Brigades, and on targets belonging to Hamas's military wing.

'Code red'

Late on Wednesday, "code red" sirens sounded across southern Israel after militants fired tens of rockets from northern Gaza in a co-ordinated attack, Israeli military spokesman Lt Col Peter Lerner said.

One rocket exploded near a petrol station and another near a public library, a police spokesman said.

Israeli troops initially responded by targeting "two terrorist locations" with artillery rounds, Col Lerner said.

Residents in the Beit Hanoun area of Gaza said they saw an Israeli strike hit a rocket launcher squad.

A statement by the al-Quds Brigades said the barrage was its "initial response" to the "crimes of the Zionist enemy in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip", the latest of which was the "assassination" of three of its members on Tuesday.

The Israeli military said it had targeted the militants after they fired mortars at its troops. The al-Quds Brigades said the Israeli soldiers had crossed into the Gaza Strip.

After Wednesday's rocket barrage, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "We won't flinch. We will continue to hurt those who try to hurt us."

Israelis inspect the damage done by a rocket to a road in the town of Sderot (12 March 2014) An Israeli military spokesman said eight rockets had hit urban civilian areas, including Sderot

He said that the number of rockets this year has been the lowest in the last decade.

Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad and other groups have sporadically fired rockets and mortars at Israel since the 2012 conflict ended, while the Hamas movement that governs Gaza has refrained from doing so.

However, an Israeli military statement said it held Hamas "responsible for all attacks emanating" from the coastal territory.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, on a visit to Israel, condemned the rocket attack.

"They are a reminder once again of the importance of maintaining and securing Israel's future and the security threats that you face, and you have Britain's support in facing those security threats," he said.

Israel pulled its troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip, now run by Hamas, in 2005. But it maintains a naval and air blockade and restricts the overland movement of people and goods across their shared border.

Al-Quds Brigades militants at the funeral of the comrades whose death the group said today's attack was to avenge The Al-Quds Brigades at the funeral of the comrades whose death today's attack was claimed to avenge

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