JERUSALEM – Israel launched a series of airstrikes Tuesday on targets in the Gaza Strip in retaliation for the deadly shooting of an Israeli civilian, killing at least two people, including a young girl, and wounding nine, Hamas officials said.
It was the heaviest flare-up of violence along the volatile border in months and threatened to destabilize a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers that largely has held for more than a year.
A series of explosions could be heard in Gaza City on Tuesday afternoon. Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra said one airstrike killed a 3-year-old girl and wounded three relatives, including two young siblings. He said a man was killed in an Israeli attack in northern Gaza. In all, nine people were wounded, one critically, he said.
Israel launched the airstrikes shortly after a Gaza sniper shot an Israeli civilian laborer as he performed maintenance work on the border fence. The man was airlifted to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
The incident occurred as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was visiting the nearby town of Sderot, a frequent target of Palestinian attacks, to inaugurate a new rail line.
"This is a very severe incident and we will not let it go unanswered," Netanyahu said. "Our policy until now has been to act beforehand and to respond in force, and this is how we will act regarding this incident as well."
Israel and Hamas are bitter enemies, but both sides largely have observed a cease-fire that ended eight days of heavy fighting in November 2012. The cease-fire has been tested by periodic rocket and mortar attacks out of Gaza. Salafist extremists have been behind most of the violence, but Israel holds Hamas responsible for any attacks out of the territory.
Israel recently discovered a pair of smuggling tunnels leading from Gaza into Israel that it said were built by militant groups planning to stage attacks.
Tuesday's attack was the latest in a series of violent incidents. An Israeli policeman was stabbed Monday outside a West Bank settlement, hours after a rocket fired from Gaza landed in southern Israel.
On Sunday, a pipe bomb authorities believe was planted by Palestinian militants exploded on a bus in central Israel, moments after the vehicle was evacuated. It was the most serious attack inside Israel in more than a year.
Despite the uptick in violence, Israeli officials don't believe the incidents are connected.