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At least five Palestinians, including a 1-year-old child, were killed Saturday as Israel responded with force to thefiring of 200 rockets earlier from Gaza into southern Israel, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.
Air-raid sirens sounded across southern Israel as the rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip, according to the Israel Defense Forces, sending residents running for bomb shelters. The IDF initially said 200 rockets were fired but later increased the number to about 250. Dozens were intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system, and 70 percent of the rockets landed in open areas, it said.
Israel Police spokesperson Mickey Rosenfeld said there were heightened security measures in the south and increased patrols in cities after the wave of rockets. He said police bomb disposal experts were responding to rockets that have struck open areas in the south.
Rosenfeld said a house was damaged by a rocket in the town of Ashkelon, not far from the border with Gaza, but its occupants were safe.
MDA, Israel's emergency medical service, said a 50-year-old man was treated for shrapnel wounds after getting injured in one of the town streets.
It also said a 50-year-old woman was "severely injured" in a nearby town of Kiryat Gat after suffering shrapnel wounds.
The IDF said on Twitter that its tanks had begun to strike Hamas military targets. It said later Saturday that it has struck approximately 30 targets along the Gaza Strip.
Saturday's missile barrage comes after the IDF said that shots were fired at Israeli troops from southern Gaza on Friday, injuring two soldiers.
In response, an IDF aircraft targeted a military post of Hamas, an Islamic militant group that has ruled over the territory since 2007. Hamas said that two of its members were killed and three were wounded in that strike.
Hamas would "continue to respond to the crimes by the occupation and it will not allow it to shed the blood of our people," its spokesman Abdel-Latif al-Qanoua said in a statement on Saturday. He made no explicit claim for Hamas having fired the rockets.
The escalation, which comes just before both the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and Israel's Independence Day holiday, prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to convene security chiefs, Reuters reported.
The U.S. State Department in a statement Saturday said, "The United States strongly condemns the ongoing barrage of rocket attacks by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad from Gaza upon innocent civilians and their communities across Israel," and that "we call on those responsible for the violence to cease this aggression immediately."
"We stand with Israel and fully support its right to self defense against these abhorrent attacks," the U.S. State Department said. The Israel Defense Forces also blamed the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas for the rocket attacks.
Israel and Hamas have managed to avert all-out war for the past five years. Egyptian mediators, credited with brokering a ceasefire after a Hamas rocket attack north of Tel Aviv in March triggered a burst of intense fighting, have been working to prevent any further escalation of hostilities.
Gaza, which is home to around two million Palestinians, has seen its economy suffer after years of blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts. Unemployment stands at 52 percent, according to the World Bank.
Israel says its blockade is necessary to stop weapons reaching Hamas, which has fought three wars with Israel in the past decade.