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Israel, Gaza exchange heaviest strikes since cease-fire

Palestinian militants launched rockets into southern Israel, while the Israel Air Force launched airstrikes.

JERUSALEM — Israel and Gaza have exchanged some of the heaviest airstrikes since the truce negotiated in November which ended Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense on the Strip.

The Israel Air Force launched its first airstrikes on the Gaza Strip since the cease-fire late on Tuesday night, responding to three mortar shells which were fired at the Negev on Tuesday.

Palestinian militants fired two more rockets from the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, which exploded on open ground near the Israeli town of Sderot,according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

More from GlobalPost: Israeli aircraft hit Gaza in first strikes since November

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The latest hostilities were sparked by anger in Gaza over the cancer-related death of a Palestinian prisoner held by Israel, Reuters reported. The prisoner, Maysar Abuhamida, will be buried tomorrow in Hebron, in the West Bank.

The Palestinian government has been calling for massive demonstrations, and in a press release held Israel responsible for Abuhamida’s death.

“We will not allow shooting of any sort [even sporadic] toward our citizens and our forces,” said Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s new defense minister and a former military chief of staff, in response to the rocket launches from Gaza, the Associated Press reported.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas, said Israel’s airstrikes were a clear violation of the cease-fire. “We call on international parties to intervene immediately to end the Israeli escalation and also the violations against the prisoners,” he said in a statement, according to The New York Times.

In Gaza, Hamas is rapidly losing popularity. A recent poll shows 55 percent of Palestinians supporting a two-state solution, which is absolutely rejected by Hamas, and greater support for Fatah candidates than those from Hamas.

Israel was dominated on Wednesday by news of heightened military alertness on almost every border. An Israeli Defense Forces patrol was shot at on Tuesday in the Golan Heights and responded by shelling Syrian rebel positions.

The Syrian civil war is now pretty much felt routinely on Israel’s northeastern border. For people living in the Golan Heights, the sounds of mortar and shelling are a daily presence. Farmers tending their fields have seen mortar shells land meters from them. This is a sea change in living conditions for people who have lived on an absolutely quiet border, despite the formal state of war since the Six Day War in 1967.

Wounded Syrian civilians and rebels have also become a constant presence as they request medical assistance on the Israeli border. To handle the growing demand, the IDF has set up a field hospital on the northern Golan Heights.

The assessment of the head of Israeli military intelligence, Gen. Aviv Kochavi, is that as soon as the rebels are done with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, “they will come after us.” The growing influence of Al Qaeda and similar movements among the various rebel groups operating in Syria is being monitored very closely, and causing significant anxiety.

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Causing even greater anxiety is the situation next door, in beleaguered Lebanon, where Hezbollah, which depends on the Assad regime for its survival, is growing more desperate.

The Israeli military is openly concerned that Hezbollah will return to bombarding the Israeli north with missiles as a way of drawing attention away from its predicament, and as a show of strength.