Jerusalem: Militants in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip bombarded southern Israel with rockets and mortars Sunday, striking an empty school and sending thousands of Israelis into bomb shelters, as Israel responded with airstrikes and diplomats scrambled to keep a new convulsion of Israeli-Palestinian violence from escalating.
The latest round of hostilities was triggered Thursday by militants who launched an attack from Egyptian territory, ambushing Israeli cars and buses along the border and killing eight people. Israel says an armed Palestinian faction from Gaza was responsible.
In Israel, soccer games, concerts and other public events in the towns and cities within rocket range were called off. Israel`s air force kept up a string of strikes throughout the day, targeting Gaza sites linked to Hamas and Gaza`s other militant factions.
The deaths of three Egyptian security personnel in the gunbattles has precipitated a crisis in the already frayed relations between Israel and Egypt, which have shared a cool peace for three decades. Egypt, blaming Israel, initially threatened to withdraw its ambassador in Tel Aviv but relented after Israel apologized.
On Sunday morning, an Israeli envoy arrived at Cairo`s international airport and was whisked off in a convoy of four waiting cars, airport officials said. Israel`s government would not comment on the envoy`s identity or the details of his mission. A second unidentified envoy arrived later Sunday, the Egyptian officials said.
Diplomats in Cairo and Jerusalem said the US, France and Germany were working with the Israelis and Egyptians to end the diplomatic spat. They spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss ongoing diplomatic efforts.
In the Egyptian capital, protesters gathered outside the Israeli Embassy for a third day on Sunday and demanded the expulsion of the Israeli envoy. The ambassador is not currently in Egypt.
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai said Israel`s current response to the surge in violence — airstrikes that have killed 15 Palestinians, most of them militants — was not its final word.
Israel "will not hesitate" to widen its military operation if necessary, he told Israel Radio.
Israeli troops also rounded up 50 Hamas activists in the West Bank in an overnight raid, Palestinian security officials said.
Diplomats scrambled to try to prevent the violence — the deadliest since Israel went to war against Gaza militants 2 1/2 years ago — from spiraling out of control. Yaser Otham, the Egyptian representative to the Palestinian Authority, told Voice of Palestine radio that Cairo was "in contact with all parties to restore the truce in Gaza."
Militant factions in Gaza confirmed the efforts. Talal Abu Tharefeh, spokesman for the small Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said "all the Palestinian factions are interested in restoring the truce in order to protect our people."
Large-scale Israeli military operations in Gaza would create new friction with the Muslim world at a time when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is preparing to ask the United Nations to recognize an independent Palestinian state. Pictures of a major Israeli offensive in Gaza could hurt the Jewish state`s efforts to minimize world support for the Palestinian statehood bid.
A spokesman said Abbas` Palestinian Authority planned to use the renewed violence to bolster its case for statehood at the United Nations next month.
"An independent Palestinian state is the remedy for violence," Husam Zomlot said. "It would control its borders and prevent such deterioration from happening."
Abbas, who wields limited power in the West Bank under Israel`s overall security control, asserts no such control at this time. Hamas routed his loyalists from Gaza in a violent 2007 takeover, and a reconciliation pact the two sides signed in May has stalled.
Hamas, backed by Iran, opposes both peacemaking with Israel and Abbas` statehood bid.
Under Hamas rule, Gaza`s militants have increased the quality and range of their rocket arsenals and now target the largest city in Israel`s south — Beersheba, 25 miles away from Gaza. Most of the rockets launched since Thursday have been military-grade Katyushas smuggled in through tunnels from Egypt.
Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005.
Since Thursday`s ambush, militants have fired some 100 rockets and mortars into Israel. On Saturday, rockets killed an Israeli man in Beersheba and seriously wounded two others.