Netanyahu vows to 'mercilessly' hit Gaza militants; Gaza Strip residents say kids living in fear

“They have one choice, to stop these attacks or absorb more and more blows,” the prime minister said amid the escalating violence.

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By Saphora Smith, Paul Goldman and Lawahez Jabari

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Wednesday that Israel was prepared to hit Iran-backed Islamic Jihad militants in the Gaza Strip "mercilessly," while a Gaza Strip resident described conditions there as close to unbearable, saying "we try to calm the kids but they live in fear."

“In the last day, we have destroyed important targets of Islamic Jihad,” the caretaker prime minister told a Cabinet meeting, referring to the militants who launched more than 200 rockets into Israel after an Israeli airstrike killed Bahaa Abu el-Atta, one of its senior commanders, and his wife. “They have one choice, to stop these attacks or absorb more and more blows.”

Netanyahu said the country was not looking to escalate the conflict.

Tuesday's strike on the second-largest militant group in the Gaza Strip triggered the most serious escalation of violence in the area in months. Since early Tuesday, Israel has pounded Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza, while rockets fired from the strip reached as far as Tel Aviv.

Smoke rises following an explosion in Gaza City on Tuesday.Mohammed Salem / Reuters

Gaza’s Health Ministry said 24 Palestinians have been killed in the flare-up and 69 wounded. Of the 24, 20 were militants and four civilians, according to Palestinian officials. In Israel, 48 people were wounded, including two men who were injured by shrapnel, according to the country's emergency medical services.

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Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian politician in the West Bank, condemned the targeted killing, as well as the Israeli strikes.

"An entire captive civilian population is helpless and defenseless in the face of Israeli bombardment," she said in a statement.

In a sign that it may want to reduce the potential for a wider conflict, Israel has not hit Hamas — the largest militant group the runs Gaza — or mentioned its name in briefings.

Netanyahu told the council heads of areas closest to the Gaza Strip on Wednesday that Israel's action was carried out with "surgical precision."

In Gaza, schools and most government offices remained closed for a second day Wednesday, as were schools throughout much of southern Israel. Border crossings into Gaza were also closed.

Imad Saudi, 52, told NBC News that conditions in Gaza were close to unbearable.

"Life is almost nonexistent and the markets and the shops are completely closed," the father of seven said. "We try to calm the kids but they live in fear."

CCTV footage shows an explosion on a highway near Ashdod, Israel, on Tuesday.Netivey Israel / Reuters

In Nirim, an Israeli kibbutz on the border fence with Gaza, Adele Raemer said the conflict made it feel like life "was on hold."

"I'm supposed to go to school tomorrow. I have no idea if there's going to be school," she said in a video posted to her Facebook page about life on the border with Gaza.

Anxiety has been running high throughout Israeli communities near the fence in southern Israel ever since March 2018, when Palestinians started the "Great March of Return" demonstrations, as well as flocks of incendiary kites and explosive balloons as well as rockets from Gaza.

Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip in 2005 but keeps it under a blockade, citing security concerns. Aid officials warn that the 2 million Palestinians living there face imminent humanitarian collapse. Hamas and Israel have fought three wars between 2008 and 2014, after the group took control of the territory in 2007.

Netanyahu is currently Israel's caretaker prime minister. His main rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, is trying to form a coalition government after Netanyahu failed to do so following an election in September.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed.