At least 15 Palestinians have been killed and a dozen others wounded, including children, in a series of Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip, Palestinian medical sources have said.
A Palestinian riding a motorcycle was killed and two others were wounded in an Israeli air raid close to the southern town of Rafah near the border with Egypt on Saturday afternoon.
Two men also on a motorbike were killed earlier the same day in another raid on the town of Khan Yunis, medics said
In a statement on Saturday, the Israeli army said: “The targeting is in direct response to the rocket fire at Israeli communities in southern Israel.
"Over the past 24 hours, over 45 rockets have hit communities in southern Israel- injuring four people, one severely, one moderately and two lightly."
An airstrike late on Friday struck down three Palestinians after an Apache helicopter fired rockets that hit a house and a car, medics told Al Jazeera.
An earlier strike targeted the leader of Popular Resistance Committees, Zuhair Al-Qaissi, and his military escort Mahmoud Al-Hannani, a Palestinian prisoner released from Israeli jails five years ago.
Witnesses said Israeli drones were seen hovering above just moments before al-Qaissi’s vehicle burst into flames.
The intensity of the blast was so fierce that al-Qaissi’s head detached as a result, they said.
Al Jazeera’s Paul Brennan, reporting from Jerusalem, said: "The Israeli army is saying these two people it targeted with its clinical airstrike on Friday night were senior militants who were plotting an attack.
"The Israeli army says that last year’s attack on the road that runs alongside the Egyptian border, where eight people were killed and 25 Israeli soldiers were wounded, was masterminded by the two men they targeted.
"Zuhair Al-Qaissi and Mahmoud Al-Hannani were said to have been behind these attacks, and the Israeli army said that these two men were planning a similar attack and that is why they launched their aerial clinical attack."
Islamic Jihad said that the three of those killed belonged to its military wing, the Al-Quds Brigades, looking to end Israel’s occupation of annexed Palestinian lands.
The Al-Quds Brigades, part of the Islamic Jihad group, said that strikes on the east side of the city had killed its members Obeid al-Gharabli, Mohammed Harara, Hazem Qoureqa and Shadi Seqali.
It said that another two of its members, Fayeq Saad and Moatasem Hajaj, were also killed in other strikes.
In addition to the high profile strike, Israeli war jets carried out series of attacks at empty military training camps all over the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli attacks came after Palestinians fired dozens of rockets and mortar rounds into southern Israel, wounding four people, one seriously, Israeli military sources claimed.
Circle of Violence
The Palestinian Authority condemned the strikes, saying it had created a "negative environment" that would "escalate the circle of violence in the region," according to a statement released by the official Palestinian WAFA news agency.
The Israeli military said in a statement that Qaisi "was among the leaders who planned, funded and directed" a deadly cross-border attack into southern Israel from Egypt’s Sinai last August.
The statement added that both the dead men were "responsible for planning a combined terror attack that was to take place via Sinai in the coming days."It said that other strikes were aimed at men about to fire rockets into Israel.
Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, has maintained a tacit truce with Israel, but other armed Palestinian groups regularly fire rockets and mortars across the border, which can spark air strikes in response.
"The recent Zionist escalation is an unjustified crime, it comes as a part of the destabilisation of a stable security situation in the Gaza Strip" the Hamas-run Gaza government’s interior ministry said in a statement.
"We hold the international community fully responsible for the attacks."
Before Friday’s airstrikes, Israeli army radio quoted what it called "senior military sources" as saying the army "does not intend to allow the firing to continue."
(Al Jazeera and Agencies)