A member of Palestinian civil defense extinguishes a fire at a Hamas training camp after it was hit by an Israeli air strike in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip December 24, 2013. A Gaza sniper shot dead an Israeli civilian over the border on Tuesday and Israel hit back with air strikes on two Hamas training camps which hospital officials said killed a Palestinian girl near one of the targets. (REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli air and ground forces launched a series of attacks Tuesday on targets across the Gaza Strip, killing a young girl and wounding 10 in response to the deadly shooting of an Israeli civilian by a Palestinian sniper.
It was the heaviest burst of violence in the volatile area since November 2012, when Israel and Hamas' rulers engaged in eight days of heavy fighting. The sudden flare-up threatened a cease-fire that halted that fighting and which largely has held up for the past 13 months.
"I recommend to Hamas not to test our patience and to assert its authority," Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said. "If there isn't quiet in Israel, there won't be quiet in the Gaza Strip."
The Israeli military said aircraft, tanks and infantry targeted "terror sites" in Gaza, including a weapons-manufacturing facility, "terror infrastructure" and a concealed rocket launcher. "Direct hits were confirmed," it said.
Palestinian officials reported at least 16 Israeli attacks, causing a causing a series of loud explosions across the territory in rapid succession. Hamas ordered its forces to evacuate offices and compounds and redeploy to safer sites.
Hamas Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra said an airstrike in central Gaza killed a 3-year-old girl and wounded three relatives, including two young siblings. In all, 10 people were wounded, he said. He said an earlier report of a second death was wrong, and that the wounded man was in serious condition at a hospital.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri condemned what he called "cowardly" Israeli attacks. "The occupation will not terrify the Palestinian people by these actions and will not punish our resistance and will not halt its readiness to respond to any attacks on Gaza," 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."
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the bloodshed and called on all sides to preserve the November 2012 cease-fire. "The secretary-general rejects all actions targeting civilians and calls on all concerned to exert maximum restraint and to prevent another cycle of bloodshed," his office said in a statement.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, expressed hope that the quiet would be restored but said the military remained ready for any scenario. "We're not looking for an escalation on the border with Gaza," he said. "But we're not willing to have shots fired at us from across the fence, killing our civilians."
Israel and Hamas are bitter enemies. The sides have engaged in frequent fighting since Hamas, an Islamic militant group committed to Israel's destruction, seized power of Gaza in 2007. Israel has carried out two large-scale military offensives in Gaza in response to heavy rocket fire, in early 2009 and then last year.
The 2012 operation ended in an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire. While both sides have largely observed the truce, it has been tested by periodic rocket and mortar fire out of Gaza and retaliatory airstrikes. Salafist extremists opposed to the cease-fire have been behind most of the violence. But Israel says it holds Hamas responsible for all attacks out of its territory. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Tuesday's shooting.
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. The powerful explosion, which caused heavy damage to the empty bus, was the most serious attack inside Israel in more than a year.
In a reflection of the tensions, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and Consulate in Jerusalem ordered American employees and their families to avoid shared minibus taxis that operate in Israel. It said the ban would remain in effect for two weeks while officials "assess the security implications" of the bus bombing. There already has been a longstanding ban on riding buses and standing at bus stops.
The violence has clouded the atmosphere in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the rival Palestinian government that rules in the West Bank.
Israeli officials believe the recent string of attacks is not connected. But Yaalon, the Israeli defense minister, accused the Palestinian Authority of promoting incitement and hatred of Israel that have created an environment for violence.