By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Eli Berlzon
GAZA/SDEROT, Israel - Palestinians fired dozens of rockets into southern Israel and Israel launched scores of air strikes in Gaza killing a pregnant woman and a child as fighting entered a second day on Thursday despite efforts to broker a truce to end months of simmering violence.
Palestinian officials said three people were killed in the Israeli attacks: a member of the Islamist Hamas group that rules Gaza, a pregnant woman, and her 18-month-old child. At least five civilians were wounded, local medical officials said.
The Israeli military said seven people were wounded in southern Israel; one was identified by her employer as a Thai agricultural worker.
The exchanges, which began on Wednesday, have stayed within familiar parameters. The rocket fire from Gaza has not targeted Israel’s heartland and the Israeli military said its air strikes were limited to Hamas installations.
Yuval Steinitz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner cabinet, told Israel Radio: “We are not eager for war and are not interested in a broader confrontation but at the same time it could certainly happen because we will not make any concessions to Hamas.”
Netanyahu was due to convene the security cabinet later to assess the situation.
The flare-up came after officials on both sides had talked about potential progress in an effort by the United Nations and Egypt to broker a truce to end months of violence and alleviate deepening humanitarian and economic hardship in the Gaza Strip.
Rocket warning sirens sounded almost non-stop in the southern Israeli town of Sderot and other border communities from sunset on Wednesday. Many residents have a reinforced room in their homes where they can shelter. The military said more than 150 rockets and mortar bombs were fired from Gaza.
Ambulance sirens echoed through the night in Gaza, where families huddled at home as powerful explosions shook buildings. The Israeli military said its aircraft struck 140 facilities belonging to Hamas.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri blamed Israel for the escalation, citing the killing of two Hamas gunmen on Tuesday in northern Gaza which he described as unprovoked.
Israeli media reports said fire from the gunmen had apparently been part of a Hamas exercise and not directed at Israel. An Israeli military spokesman said Hamas operatives had shot in the general direction of Israel’s border.
U.N. Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov said in an overnight statement: “I am deeply alarmed by the recent escalation of violence between Gaza and Israel, and particularly by today’s multiple rockets fired toward communities in southern Israel.”
The United Nations, he said, has engaged with Egypt in an “unprecedented effort” to avoid serious conflict, but cautioned that “the situation can rapidly deteriorate with devastating consequences for all people”.
Gaza has been controlled by Hamas for more than a decade, during which time it has fought three wars against Israel, most recently in 2014.
A senior Israeli commander said Thursday morning that the military is nearing launching an operation in the Gaza Strip, not ruling out evacuating communities near the border as the fighting continues.
"We are after another night of escalation, and at this stage we don't see it ending," the officer said.
Israel will continue striking Gaza, the officer said, noting that reinforcements are being sent to southern Israel. "The military is preparing to evacuate civilians located up to four kilometers from the border, even at the first stage of a wider campaign."
Meanwhile, Hamas on Thursday blamed the latest round of violence on Israel killing two Hamas militants on Tuesday. "Israel says it does not seek an escalation but in practice causing it," sources said. The Israeli military believes that the incident was a misunderstanding, after Israeli troops mistakenly thought that gunfire during a military demonstration in the Strip was aimed at them.