Israel and the Palestinian militant group, Islamic Jihad, traded fire for a second day as more than a dozen rockets hit Israel and the Israeli military pounded targets inside the Gaza Strip after an overnight air strike in neighbouring Syria.
Israel shuttered schools and highways, banned large public gatherings near its border with Gaza and warned civilians in the south of the country to remain near public shelters.
The escalation in rocket attacks comes a week before Israeli elections in which caretaker Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking re-election for a third time in 12 months after two deadlocked polls. Mr Netanyahu is facing criticism that his policies have emboldened militant groups in Gaza, including Hamas, which controls the sliver of land, and its rival, the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad, into targeting Israeli civilians without fear of serious reprisals.
Mr Netanyahu on Monday threatened a full scale military campaign if the rockets did not cease, after ordering an air strike on an Islamic Jihad-affiliated site in Damascus, where the group gets support from the Syrian regime.
“Hamas and Islamic Jihad need to understand, this can’t continue,” said Mr Netanyahu. “If they do not stop firing completely, and I do not mean for a day or two, but in general, if there will not be a complete halt, we will be obliged to activate the plan for an extensive campaign that we have prepared.”
The current round of attacks was prompted by an incident on the border with Gaza on Sunday, when the Israeli military used a bulldozer to scoop up the corpse of an Islamic Jihad fighter, who it said had been shot while trying to plant a bomb near the border fence.
Israel said the bulldozer was used to make sure the dead militant was not wearing an explosive vest, even as Israeli soldiers shot at others who were trying to retrieve the body, and a widely shared video of the incident enraged Palestinians.
A retaliatory rocket hit an empty playground in the Israeli border town of Sderot on Monday, underscoring the risk of a further escalation and the challenge of dealing with Islamic Jihad, which is much smaller than Hamas and has different goals.
While Israel has no official relations with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist group, it has several lines of communication with the group and regularly works out short term ceasefires via intermediaries.
The Israeli government’s lines of communication with Islamic Jihad are less developed. Instead, Mr Netanyahu’s administration has held Hamas responsible for Islamic Jihad’s actions, demanding that Hamas rein in its rival or risk punishment.
“I’ve passed a message to Hamas,” Mr Netanyahu told Army Radio. “If they don’t shoot at [Islamic Jihad] we will shoot at [Hamas].”
Israel and Hamas have fought several wars in the past decade, the last in 2014, but Mr Netanyahu has since sought to sustain an uneasy detente with the militant group, using a combination of diplomatic intervention from Egypt and a policy of allowing Qatar to send Hamas $20m a month to pay civilian salaries.
The policy has been described by his rivals in the Israeli elections as the payment of protection money, and unpredictable escalations have threatened to pull the two sides into full out war on several occasions in the past year.
Israel has blockaded the Gaza Strip since about 2007 after the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Hamas won local elections and wrested control from the secular Fatah, which still runs the occupied West Bank.
The blockade has destroyed Gaza’s economy and trapped 2m Palestinians into a tiny strip of land with only a few hours a day of electricity and little access to the outside world.
But it has failed to topple Hamas, which remains popular despite an inability to provide services like schools and hospitals without regular influxes of foreign aid, which Israel closely monitors.