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'Escalation': Worst Gaza flare-up in months kills 14, Palestinians say

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- The worst exchange of strikes between Israel and the Gaza Strip so far this year entered its second day on Saturday, as Israeli aircraft carried out raids that have so far killed 14 militants according to a Palestinian count, and militants responded with nearly 100 rockets.

The flare-up began Friday with a strike on a commander who the Israelis say was planning an attack. This unleashed a fierce rocket barrage by Palestinian militants from the coastal territory toward Israel's southern border communities. One of those rockets seriously wounded an Israeli civilian and sent families scattering into bomb shelters.

By midday Saturday, militants fired 92 rockets at Israel - far more than the total number fired from the beginning of this year until this exchange of strikes began, a military spokesman said. He spoke anonymously in line with military regulations.

Egypt said it was trying to shackle together a cease-fire to halt the violence, but truce hopes seemed distant on Saturday.

Gaza residents said they could hear the low whooshing noise of militants firing rockets from border areas toward Israel.

In the skies above them Israeli drones hovered, making tinny noises. Hundreds of Palestinian mourners gathered on the streets to bury their dead. They were carried in coffins, their bodies too torn up to be wrapped up in cloth, as Muslim tradition dictates. Masked militants among them sprayed machine gun fire above their heads in angry grief.

On Israel's southern border areas, residents were told to stay home and to refrain from holding large outdoor events on Saturday.

Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, blamed Israel for the violence and called for Western intervention to try and halt any further escalation which threatened to complicate rife tensions along the restive Israeli-Gaza frontier and their common border with Egypt.

"This Israeli escalation in Gaza is completely condemned and we urge the world community, and the Quartet (of Middle East power brokers), especially the United States, to put enough pressure on Israeli government to stop this escalation," Rdainah told Reuters television.

Israel said one of the militants killed on Friday had been involved in plotting a cross-border attack from Egypt. Israeli media reports said he had also been closely involved in the 2006 capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, freed as part of a prisoner swap in October.

 An Israeli military statement said the latest airstrikes had targeted two weapons manufacturing sites. The strikes were launched in response to rocket fire from Gaza that injured four people in Israel, including one man, who is reported to be in a serious condition, it added.

Israeli media said the seriously injured man is a worker from Thailand.

Vow of revenge
Militant groups in Hamas-ruled Gaza vowed to exact revenge for the killings. According to the Israeli military, more than 90 rockets have been fired at Israel since Friday, including 25 longer-range Grad rockets intercepted by Israel's "Iron Dome" missile interceptor system.

Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) claimed responsibility for most of the rockets and mortar shells fired which they also said totaled more than 70.

Israel launched some half a dozen airstrikes at militants in Gaza on Friday, killing 10.

Hamas, an Iranian-backed group that refuses to recognize Israel, did not claim responsibility for any of the missile attacks on Israel, and there were no reported civilian fatalities in Gaza, factors which may keep the violence from escalating.

However, Israel says it holds Hamas responsible for any attacks launched from its territory.

Around six Palestinians among 17 people wounded in the Israeli attacks have been identified by medics as civilians.

Hamas seized control of Gaza from Abbas's Fatah movement in a bloody 2007 coup, two years after Israel pulled its forces out of the territory it had captured in a 1967 war.

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The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.