An Israeli air strike on the Gaza town of Rafah has killed six people, Palestinian medics and news agencies said, just hours after a series of deadly attacks in southern Israel.
Israeli military sources confirmed on Thursday that air strikes were carried out in Gaza shortly after the attacks in Israel that killed at least seven people.
Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Jerusalem Cal Perry reported that another attack occurred later on Thursday in southern Israel, even after the Israeli military unleashed its air strikes.
"There has now been a fourth shooting attack near Eilat, where the earlier attacks took place," Perry said.
Perry described the Israeli strikes on Gaza as "clearly a targeted hit by Israel".
"They are certainly ratcheting up the violence. After the evidence they say they found today it’s clear they are stepping up their attacks on Gaza," he said.
The Israeli army said the Gaza-based Popular Resistance Committees group was the target of the air strikes and claimed three members of the organisation had been killed.
"Among those targeted were Kamal al-Neyrab, the head of the organisation in the Gaza Strip, Imad Hamad, head of the military wing of the organisation, and Khaled Shaath, a senior operative," a military spokeswoman told the AFP news aganecy.
"These officials were behind today’s combined terrorist attacks with the primary objective of kidnapping an Israeli civilian or soldier," she said.
In the earlier attacks, gunmen armed with heavy weapons and explosives killed seven people and wounded dozens in attacks on a bus and two roads in southern Isreal.
The attacks began around midday on Thursday and lasted for about three hours, news agencies reported.
Israeli security forces killed several of the attackers in a gunbattle, military spokesman Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai told reporters. Israeli TV channels claimed seven assailants were killed.
The attacks, which came close together in time and location, appeared coordinated, and represented one of the boldest strikes in years against Israel.
The violence began when assailants targeted a packed passenger bus driving along a highway roughly 20km north of the Red Sea resort of Eilat.
Reports said most of the passengers on the bus were Israeli soldiers on their way home from their respective bases for the weekend.
The next attack came about half an hour later, when gunmen opened fire on a private car several miles away, the Associated Press reported.
Israel Radio said a vehicle had followed the bus, and two to three gunmen got out and opened fire with automatic weapons.
The vehicle carrying the assailants fled the scene, and Israeli security forces took off in pursuit, Israel Radio said. Channel 2 reported that two helicopters had been deployed to join the chase. The attackers fired mortars and an anti-tank missile, the report continued.
After that, an explosive device was detonated under the vehicle of a military patrol called to the scene, and a private car was also attacked.
Roadblocks were thrown up in the area and that entrances and exits to Eilat were sealed. Senior Israeli security officials convened in emergency session at the defense ministry in Tel Aviv.
The military said a "large number” of assailants were working in multiple squads, but it gave no specifics, according to AP.
"We are talking about a terror squad that infiltrated into Israel,” said Israeli military spokeswoman Colonel Avital Leibovich. "This is a combined terrorist attack against Israelis.”
‘Hunt Down’ Perpetrators
Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, vowed to "hunt down" the perpetrators of Thursday’s attack, according to Army Radio.
Speaking to reporters shortly after the air strikes, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak confirmed that the Popular Resistance Committees had been targetted.
"The Israel Defence Forces will continue to act with all its power and even now the IDF’s strikes are raining down on the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza as we speak," he said.
The raids came as Israeli military forces battled to regain control in southern Israel after the attacks.
Ahmad Yousef, a senior Hamas leader in Gaza, denied the group’s responsibility for the Eilat attacks, though he said Hamas "praises the attack since it attacked [Israeli] soldiers and came in the right time while Israel is attacking Gaza almost every day".
"Since the whole political process is frozen, military escalation is the logical development," Yousef replied to Barak’s threat against Gaza.
Eilat is "a tactical choice for attacks because the resistance groups look for suitable places and times for their attacks," he told Al Jazeera, on why southern Israel may have been the target.
(Al Jazeera and Agencies)