JERUSALEM — Israeli aircraft and tanks pounded Gaza on Friday and early today, killing seven Hamas militants and five civilians in a surge of fighting sparked by a Palestinian rocket attack on an Israeli school bus the day before.
Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers seemed on the brink of another round of intense violence, just a little over two years after a three-week war in which persistent rocket fire from Gaza triggered a devastating Israeli military offensive in the territory.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the attack on the school bus "crossed a line" and warned that "whoever tries to harm and murder children will pay with their life."
In Thursday's attack, Gaza militants hit the Israeli school bus near the border with a guided antitank missile, injuring the driver and badly wounding a 16-year-old boy. Most of the schoolchildren on the bus had gotten off shortly before the attack. Hamas, which had largely held its fire since Israel's last major offensive, claimed responsibility.
Early today, an airstrike against a vehicle traveling near Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip killed three Hamas militants, including a senior commander, the group said. Israel confirmed the strike.
The early morning attack brought the three-day death toll from Israel's ongoing retaliation to 17 Gazans — 10 militants, a Hamas police officer and six civilians. It amounts to the bloodiest tally since Israel and Hamas wrapped up their three-week war more than two years ago.
The dead Friday included three civilians killed by Israeli tank fire and three militants killed in an airstrike, both near the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis. Another militant was killed in an airstrike in northern Gaza.
Later, an Israeli tank shell struck a cemetery east of Gaza City, killing two civilians, including an 11-year-old boy, said Palestinian health official Adham Abu Salmiya. The military insisted the strike targeted militants and that it had no information about any civilian casualties.
Gaza militants fired about 30 mortar shells at southern Israel on Friday, causing no injuries, the Israeli military said.
For the second day in a row, Israel's Iron Dome missile-defense system successfully intercepted rockets aimed at Israeli cities, the military said.
It is unclear if Hamas was trying to provoke a new conflagration, if it was not fully in control of all of its fighters, or if it believes Israel would pull back before invading Gaza again. Israel was condemned internationally after the last incursion.
Hamas said the rocket attack was in retaliation for the killing of three fighters in an airstrike earlier in the week. Around midnight Thursday, with Gaza rocked by explosions, the organization announced a cease-fire, though it later claimed responsibility for some of Friday's strikes. A small PLO faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the radical Islamic Jihad group also said they fired at Israel.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon on Friday condemned the bus attack and expressed concern over civilian casualties in Israel's strikes. He called for "de-escalation and calm to prevent any further bloodshed."