Israeli soldier killed by Palestinian fire near Gaza

World       by Usman Arshad | Published

Israeli airstrikes and tank fire kill at least four people across the Gaza Strip.

The escalation comes after months of growing tensions in Gaza as Palestinians mounted large, and often violent, demonstrations and Israeli forces opened fire on both armed militants and unarmed demonstrators.

An army statement said shots were fired at troops during renewed protests along the Gaza-Israel frontier and "in response, (Israeli) aircraft and tanks targeted military targets throughout the Gaza Strip".

A fourth Palestinian was shot dead during protests along the border, the health officials said.

The weekly protests led by Hamas against Israel are meant in part to draw attention to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed after the militant group assumed control of Gaza in 2007.

At least 120 Gazans were wounded and three Hamas fighters were among the four Palestinians killed in the military strikes. It added that "Hamas chose to escalate the security situation and will bear the consequences for its actions".

Earlier Friday, Israel's Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited Sderot, an Israeli town near Gaza that has been hard hit by Palestinian rockets over the years.

On the Israeli side of the border, the authorities instructed residents to remain close to bomb shelters as they braced for retaliatory rocket fire from Gaza.

The UN's special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, wrote on Twitter: "Everyone in Gaza needs to step back from the brink".

Israel has been accused of using excessive force against Palestinian protesters, an allegation its leaders have denied. "Right NOW! Those who want to provoke Palestinians and Israelis into another war must not succeed".

Lieberman has raised the threat of a large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip if Hamas does not stop the kites and balloons being launched. The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned on Friday evening of Israel's current escalation policy at the borders of the Gaza Strip, demanding the global community to intervene.

On Friday, Hamas vowed to continue its protests and the launching of incendiary devices towards Israel.

Khalil al-Hayya, Hamas's deputy chief in Gaza, said the kites would continue to fly.

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