GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli airstrikes killed a schoolboy and two other Palestinians in the Gaza Strip on Sunday, while Gaza rocket squads fired salvos into southern Israel, deepening the worst round of violence between the sides in more than a year.
A Gaza health official said a 12-year-old boy, a 60-year-old farm guard and a militant were killed as the exchanges of fire entered their third day. Egyptian efforts to achieve a cease-fire faltered, spurned by the two factions in Gaza responsible for the rocket fire. The Israeli military said its aircraft targeted rocket launchers.
The violence has shattered a monthslong lull. It was touched off Friday by an Israeli air strike that killed the commander of the Popular Resistance Committees militant group, an ally of Gaza's Hamas rulers. Since then, Israeli airstrikes have killed 16 Gaza militants and two civilians, and Palestinian militants there have fired more than 120 rockets at Israel, seriously wounding two civilians.
Gaza health official Adham Abu Salmia said the militant killed Sunday was at a rocket launching site in Gaza City. The boy was hit while walking with a friend to school in the northern town of Jebaliya and the guard died in Gaza City while walking with his dog, who was also killed, he said.
Hundreds of Palestinian mourners marched through the streets of two Gaza towns Sunday, on their way to bury the day's fatalities. Women wailed and men chanted slogans demanding revenge for the deaths, as militants fired guns into the air.
The boy's body was draped in the black flag of the Islamic Jihad militant group, which was paying for the funeral and mourning expenses.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the two dozen rockets launched from Gaza on Sunday caused no injuries. The Israeli military claims casualties have averted because Iron Dome missile defense batteries intercepted more than 90 percent of the rockets they targeted.
Israel accused the PRC commander, Zuhair al-Qaissi, of plotting an infiltration attack into southern Israel from Egypt's lawless Sinai peninsula, similar to the one they claim he orchestrated in August, which killed eight Israelis.
The PRC has never taken responsibility for the August raid. The PRC is best known for its role in the 2006 capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, who was recently freed in a prisoner swap with Hamas.
"We exacted a heavy price and continue to exact it," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday of the Israeli strikes on Gaza. "We will continue to overcome these terror threats."
Netanyahu said Israel would deploy more Iron Dome missile defense batteries in the future.
Some 1 million Israelis are within range of rocket fire from Gaza. On Sunday, schools throughout the area and Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba were closed because of the fighting. Rosenfeld said police stepped up their presence in southern Israel.
Israel and Gaza militants have frequently traded low-level fire since the 2009 war, but a flare-up of this intensity is rare. The United Nations and the U.S. State Department have condemned the violence and called on both sides to exercise restraint.
Gaza's militant Islamic Hamas rulers have denounced the Israeli airstrikes, but their fighters have not attacked Israel, leaving that to smaller militant groups.
Hamas has largely avoided direct attacks on Israel since the Jewish state conducted a bruising three-week war against it in early 2009 that killed hundreds of Gazans and destroyed many Hamas facilities.
But the Iranian-backed Hamas has been smuggling increasingly sophisticated weapons into the seaside territory, and Israel holds it responsible for all violence from Gaza.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel Radio on Sunday that there was no point in Israel's launching another large-scale offensive in Gaza unless it set out to topple the Hamas regime. Lieberman wouldn't say whether such an operation was planned but noted that the violence from Gaza was "unacceptable, and we won't reconcile ourselves to it."
Despite Lieberman's tough talk, neither side was believed to be seeking an all-out war.
"We are not interested in escalations in and of themselves," Israel's military chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, said Sunday.
Egypt, which has helped arrange truces in the past, has been trying to end the current round of fighting.
"Our contacts are still ongoing, and we hope that all parties will respond to avoid going down a path no one wants," said Egypt's ambassador to the Palestinians, Yasser Othman.
The two militant factions leading the fighting, al-Qaissi's PRC and Islamic Jihad, rejected truce overtures.
"There is no room to talk about calm, considering the continued Zionist aggression against Gaza," Khaled Batch, a leader of the Islamic Jihad militant faction in Gaza, told The Associated Press.
"We have received an offer to restore the calm and we rejected the offer," Abu Mujahed, spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, told the AP. "We will not give calm for free."
The Hamas government spokesman, Taher Nunu, said in an email to reporters that Israel had to lay down its weapons first.
"We reject the equation of murder for calm," he said. "Israel is responsible for its crimes, and it should stop the aggression against our people."
Still, Hamas officials said they have been in touch with leaders in Egypt, Qatar, Turkey and the Arab League in an effort to contain the violence.
Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian spokeswoman in the West Bank, where Hamas rival Mahmoud Abbas rules, accused Israel of deliberately provoking the violence. She said Abbas, the Palestinian president, had also been touch with leaders in Gaza and Egypt to try to restore calm.
Abbas has had little influence in Gaza since Hamas violently overran the territory in June 2007.