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Death toll rises as more than 600 rockets fired in Israel-Gaza conflict

The outburst of fighting broke a monthlong lull as Egyptian mediators had been trying to negotiate a long-term cease-fire.

By Yuliya Talmazan, Paul Goldman, Lawahez Jabari and Associated Press |NBC News|

The death toll continued to rise Sunday as civilian casualties increased on both sides of the border after more than 600 rockets were fired into Israel from Gaza in less than 24 hours — one of the most intense flareups of violence in the region in years.

A Palestinian family waits for medical help inside an ambulance outside a hospital in Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza strip, on Sunday.Anas Baba / AFP - Getty Images
A Palestinian family waits for medical help inside an ambulance outside a hospital in Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza strip, on Sunday.Anas Baba / AFP – Getty Images

The barrage of rockets from Gaza started Saturday morning, prompting Israel to retaliate with airstrikes.

At least 23 Palestinians — including two pregnant women, two infants and a child — and two unborn children were killed, and 154 more people have been injured in the Palestinian enclave, the Palestinian Health Ministry said Sunday night.

Barzilai Medical Center in the coastal city of Ashkelon confirmed the death of four Israelis on Sunday. The first to be announced, that of a man who was killed outside his home, represented the first Israeli to be killed by rocket fire in the Israel-Palestine conflict since 2014, according to the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF.

The hospital added that more than 110 others had been injured, with three said to be in severe condition.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the IDF, said Sunday that 510 rockets crossed into Israel out of more than 600 fired from Gaza so far.

The country’s Iron Dome aerial defense system, which Conricus earlier said had “saved countless lives,” intercepted 150 rockets.

Nearly 40 rockets fell in urban areas.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that he had instructed the IDF to continue “the massive attacks against terrorist elements in the Gaza Strip,” adding that he reinforced the Israeli presence around Gaza with armored forces, artillery and infantry.

Sirens wailed along the border region overnight warning of incoming attacks. School was canceled in southern Israel on Sunday, and emergency protocols were enacted. In Gaza, large explosions thundered across the blockaded enclave overnight as plumes of smoke rose.

The outburst of fighting broke a monthlong lull as Egyptian mediators had been trying to negotiate a long-term cease-fire between the two sides, who have fought three wars and several other rounds of conflict over the last decade.

Conricus, the IDF spokesman, said Sunday that his side was not aware of any cease-fire talks.

Meanwhile, the Israeli military said fighter jets attacked 260 targets inside the Gaza Strip. It said they struck rocket launchers, tunnel shafts and weapons-making factories belonging to Hamas, an Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, and the Iranian-funded group Palestinian Islamic Jihad.Conricus said the Palestinian woman and child who were killed Saturday were not killed by an Israeli weapon. “It was from internal fire,” he said.

Israel’s security cabinet has vowed to keep up the military offensive against militant groups in the Gaza Strip. Cabinet ministers issued a statement Sunday after meeting for nearly five hours, saying the “ultimate consideration is the security of the state and its residents.”

The prime minister’s office told NBC News that in a meeting Sunday night, Netanyahu told David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, and ambassadors from Europe that Hamas was “committing a double war crime by indiscriminately shooting at civilians from civilian centers.”

He said Israel would take all necessary measures to defend itself.

President Donald Trump said Sunday night on Twitter that “the Gazan people” should “END the violence” and that the United States supported Israel “100% in its defense of its citizens.”

The heightened tensions come as Israel marks Memorial Day and Independence Day this week, when masses head out to ceremonies at military cemeteries and street parties across the country. The next week, it hosts the Eurovision song contest, for which large groups of tourists are expected to arrive.

For Gazans, the violence comes ahead of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, which begins Monday.

Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007, most recently engaged in several days of heavy fighting with Israel in March before Egypt brokered a truce, under which Israel agreed to ease a crippling blockade on Gaza in exchange for a halt in rocket fire. Hamas has said it hopes that Egyptian mediators could further ease the blockade, which has ravaged Gaza’s economy.

In recent days, Hamas has accused Israel of reneging on its pledges as militants began to fire rockets into Israel. Israel, in turn, accuses Islamic Jihad of instigating the latest round of violence by shooting and wounding two Israeli soldiers Friday. In response, Israeli aircraft carried out retaliatory strikes, killing two Hamas militants, it said.

Image: Israeli building hit by rocket firePeople stand outside a building after it was hit by a rocket fired from Gaza in the costal city of Ashkelon, Israel, on Sunday.Tsafrir Abayov / AP
On Friday, two Palestinians were shot and killed by Israeli forces during the weekly protests along Israel-Gaza perimeter fence.

For more than a year, the Islamic group has orchestrated mass demonstrations every week along the Israeli frontier to draw attention to Gaza’s plight. More than 200 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier have been killed in the border protests.