New exchange between Gaza and Israel: 1 dead

Israelis stand next to damaged road after a rocket fired by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip, landed in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba, Wednesday, March. 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Israelis stand next to damaged road after a rocket fired by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip, landed in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba, Wednesday, March. 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Wednesday Mar. 23, 2011 5:48 AM ET

JERUSALEM — Gaza militants barraged southern Israel with rockets and mortars Wednesday, drawing retaliatory Israeli airstrikes in a worrisome escalation of the gravest hostilities in the area since Israel went to war in the Palestinian coastal territory two years ago.

The Islamic Jihad militant group said it fired rockets at four Israeli cities to avenge Israel’s killing of three militants and four civilians in Gaza the day before. The group said one of its fighters was killed in one of the Israeli airstrikes Wednesday, and Israeli police said an Israeli civilian was wounded by a rocket that exploded in southern Israel’s largest city, Beersheba.

A smaller militant faction allied with Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group claimed responsibility for the mortar fire.

Israel and Hamas have largely observed a truce since the Israeli military offensive in Gaza ended in January 2009.

But over the weekend, Gaza militants launched their heaviest mortar barrage against Israel in years, sending tensions soaring. The deaths Tuesday of three Gaza children and their uncle in what Israel has described as an errant mortar strike dramatically stoked the simmering violence.

In Gaza, the government declared a national day of mourning Wednesday and appealed to all Gazans to take part in the civilians’ funerals later in the day.

Both Israel and Hamas are thought to be reluctant to engage in another war, after the 2009 conflict killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians and heavily damaged thousands of homes and businesses. Thirteen Israelis also died, and Israel’s image was badly tarnished by allegations of war crimes that the Israeli government denies.

But although the war inflicted heavy damage on Hamas, the Iranian-backed group has replenished its arsenal with bigger and better weapons. Last week, Israel intercepted a cargo ship that it said was loaded with sophisticated anti-ship missiles and other arms sent from Tehran to Gaza.

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