(Update 5: Adds info, updates casualty toll in Gaza)
Gaza/Jerusalem, May 10 (EFE).- At least 20 Palestinians, including nine children, were killed in Gaza on Monday in a wave of Israeli airstrikes against Palestinian militia targets, the Health Ministry in the enclave said amid spiraling tensions in the region.
Israel said it mounted the airstrikes in retaliation for dozens of rockets fired from Gaza towards Jerusalem starting on Monday afternoon as Israeli nationalists marked the country’s national day.
Palestinian witnesses said that nine of the dead had been killed in “an internal explosion.”
The Israeli army confirmed it had struck “Hamas terrorists in Gaza” in retaliation to the “barrage of rockets” that were fired on Monday, as air attack alarms continued to sound in Israeli territory.
“We hold the Palestinian terror group Hamas in Gaza accountable for this serious aggression against us,” Israel’s Defense Forces said.
The Islamist Hamas group’s armed wing, the Qasam Brigades, claimed responsibility for firing the initial seven missiles – six of which were directed into Jerusalem – which caused Israel air raid alarms to sound for the first time since 2014.
One of the rockets was intercepted by the Iron Dome ground-to-air defense system and another fell on a house on the outskirts of the city while the rest hit unpopulated areas.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz met with the Security Cabinet, which authorized “a series of offensive attacks” against Hamas and other “terrorist organizations,” he announced, adding that Hamas and its leaders will be held responsible for the missile strikes and will pay for their “aggression.”
Warning sirens were sounded in Jerusalem and the communities surrounding Gaza and the city of Sderot. One Israeli sustained minor injuries, according to the army.
“We have the capability, the authority and the intention to deal a heavy blow to Hamas,” an army spokesman said in response to the missiles, adding that he expected “the escalation to last for a prolonged period of time.”
Hamas, which rules over Gaza, said it was firing the rockets after more than 300 Palestinians were injured in clashes with Israeli security forces outside the Al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem. About 10 Israeli troops sustained injuries in the unrest early on Monday morning, officials said.
Tensions that have been simmering in recent days boiled over on Monday with the exchange of rocket fire.
An Israeli nationalists’ march to mark Jerusalem Day – originally scheduled to pass through Muslim areas of the Old City – had to be rerouted over fears the parade would be targeted.
Dozens of young Palestinians had gathered at Damascus Gate, one of the main entry points to Jerusalem’s Old City to block the rally.
Jerusalem Day commemorates Israel’s 1967 annexation of East Jerusalem during the Six-Day War.
Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of a potential future independent state, but Israel views the whole of the city as its own “eternal and indivisible” capital.
The violence – among the worst the city has seen for years – comes amid heightened tensions in the region.
Hamas had launched three missiles from the strip into Israeli territory early Monday after the Israeli army struck a Hamas military post late on Sunday in retaliation for a rocket attack.
That exchange of hostilities followed three consecutive nights of rioting in the area, coinciding with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan that is set to end later this week.