GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip
Hamas militants pounded southern Israel with a barrage of rockets on Wednesday, hours after Israeli forces killed six gunmen in new violence that threatened a 5-month-old truce that has brought relief to both Gaza and southern Israel.
The clashes began late Tuesday after the Israeli forces burst into Gaza to destroy what the army said was a tunnel being dug near the border to abduct Israeli troops.
Despite the outbreak of violence, both Israeli authorities and officials with Gaza’s Hamas government said they wanted to restore the calm that has largely prevailed over the past five months.
After the Israeli incursion, Hamas gunmen battled Israeli forces and Gaza residents reported hearing explosions, gunshots and helicopter fire. One Hamas fighter was killed, prompting a wave of mortar fire at nearby Israeli targets.
An Israeli air strike then killed five Hamas militants preparing to fire mortar shells. Hamas responded with the rockets.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the rockets were in “response to Israel’s massive breach of the truce.”
“The Israelis began this tension and they must pay an expensive price. They cannot leave us drowning in blood while they sleep soundly in their beds,” Mr. Barhoum said.
The Israeli military said 35 rockets were fired, including one that reached the coastal city of Ashkelon, about 10 miles north of Gaza - underscoring the militants’ growing ability to strike deeper into Israel.
Police said the rocket landed in an empty area and there were no reports of injuries or property damage. However, the army said four soldiers were wounded, two moderately, in the border fighting.
The violence was the worst since Israel and Hamas agreed to an Egypt-mediated truce in June.
In scenes not seen for months, Gaza residents crowded into hospitals, as ambulances delivered the dead and injured. Grieving militants in military fatigues fired rounds of automatic-weapon fire into the air to commemorate their fallen comrades. Over Gaza City, the thudding sound of rockets being fired into Israel was audible. Unmanned Israeli aircraft, often used to target militants, buzzed overhead.
Although Israel and Hamas blamed each other for the violence, neither would say the truce was over.
“We want to see the quiet in the south continued,” said Mark Regev, the Israeli government spokesman. “This operation was in response to a Hamas intrusion of the quiet, and we hope we won’t see an escalation here.”
Mr. Barhoum, the Hamas spokesman, said the militant group was in touch with Egypt to try to restore calm.