Israeli fire kills 2 in Gaza after blast wounds soldiers

Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Israeli forces shot dead two Palestinian teenagers in the Gaza Strip, medical sources said Sunday, as tensions rose after an apparent bomb attack that wounded several Israeli soldiers on the enclave's border.

The Saturday explosion and ensuing Israeli air strikes marked one of the most serious escalations in the Hamas-ruled territory since the Islamist movement and Israel fought a war in 2014.

Israel's army said it attacked "18 terror targets belonging to the Hamas terror organisation" in two waves of air strikes.

"Eight targets were attacked in a military compound near Deir el Balah, which belongs to the Hamas terror organisation, including weapon-manufacturing and training infrastructures," it said in a statement.

Earlier the army said fighter jets had targeted "six military targets in Gaza belonging to Hamas, including: a terror tunnel in the Zaytun area and military compounds near Deir el-Balah and Khan Yunis".

Two Palestinians were injured in air strikes which hit three bases belonging to Hamas in the east of the blockaded Gaza enclave, Palestinian sources said.

Speaking at a security conference in Munich late Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had called the border blast "very serious" and pledged to "respond appropriately".

According to witnesses, the two dead Palestinians were shot by Israeli forces near the border on Saturday.

They were identified by the Gaza health ministry as Salam Sabah and Abdullah Abu Sheikha, both 17, who were killed east of Rafah in the south of the enclave.

The Israeli army said that its forces had fired "warning shots" at a number of Palestinians approaching the border fence "in a suspicious manner".

- 'Rogue group' -

Four Israeli soldiers were wounded, two severely, when an improvised explosive device blew up along the Gaza border fence, but none of their lives were in danger, the army said.

A hospital spokeswoman later said that the condition of one of those seriously wounded had improved.

Spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said a "rogue group" had claimed responsibility for the bomb blast, likely indicating one of the more radical Islamist groups who are present in Gaza.

But he insisted that "from our point of view Hamas is responsible" and said the explosive had been planted during a protest arranged by the group on Friday.

According to Conricus, Israeli soldiers saw a flag on a pole on the Gazan side of the border fence, with the device exploding when one of them grabbed it.

According to Palestinian security sources, the explosion took place east of the city of Khan Yunis.

In response Israeli forces said a tank promptly opened fire at an "observation post" in southern Gaza, causing no injuries on the Palestinian side.

A projectile launched from the Gaza Strip hit near a home in a southern Israeli community, damaging a building but causing no injuries, Israeli authorities said.

A second was fired on Sunday night, hitting an Israeli house near Sderot also without causing any casualties, the Israeli army said.

Israel holds the Islamist Palestinian movement Hamas responsible for any fire from the blockaded coastal enclave.

The Israeli army responds automatically to any strikes on its territory, generally targeting Hamas facilities.

Hamas's armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, said it had fired at Israeli jets overhead. Conricus denied the claim.

Hamas and Israel have fought three wars since 2008, and the last conflict in 2014 was waged in part over tunnels from Gaza that were used to launch attacks.

Israel hit Hamas targets in the southern Gaza Strip repeatedly in early February, saying Palestinians there had fired a rocket into its territory.

Tensions between the Palestinians and Israel have been high since US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state in December.

Netanyahu will visit the White House next month, a senior US administration official told AFP on Friday.

The March 5 visit comes as Netanyahu faces a scandal that has seen police recommend he be indicted for graft.

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