JERUSALEM — Four Israeli soldiers were wounded Saturday, two of them severely, by an explosive device that the Israeli military said had been attached to a Palestinian flag and placed along the Gaza border during protests there on Friday.
Israel responded, first, quickly, with tank fire on a Palestinian observation post near the scene of the explosion, and then — after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the incident “severe” and promised to “respond appropriately” — with airstrikes on six targets. That led to an exchange of rockets from Gaza and more tank fire from Israel.
All told, it was some of the bloodiest fighting between Israel and Gaza since the seven-week war in the summer of 2014 that Israel called Operation Protective Edge.
The Popular Resistance Committees, a militant offshoot of Fatah that has specialized in setting roadside bombs and other explosive devices, claimed responsibility for planting the explosive device.
Late Saturday, Israel said it had hit six targets, including an attack tunnel being dug by Hamas toward Israel from Zeitoun, a neighborhood in the south of Gaza City; a Hamas military compound, including a weapons manufacturing facility, in the area of Deir El Balah, in central Gaza; and another military compound near Khan Younis, in the southern end of the strip.
“We, from our perspective, don’t care too much which organization pulled the trigger,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, the spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces. “For us, there’s one address, and that’s Hamas. They are the ones who control access to the fence. Nobody has access to it without Hamas’s approval.”
Health officials in Gaza had confirmed two injuries as of 11 p.m. Hamas said it had fired on Israeli jets, but Israel said its planes all returned to base safely.
After the airstrikes, air-raid sirens sounded in southern Israel, and Israel said a rocket fired from Gaza had landed on the roof of the safe room in a home in Sha’ar HaNegev, which girds the northeastern corner of Gaza. But the rocket did not explode on impact, according to Israeli news reports.
Tensions have been building for months between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza, as a humanitarian crisis intensifies in the cramped coastal enclave of two million Palestinians.
Already beleaguered by Israel’s decade-old blockade of the strip, Gazans were made to suffer even more last year when the Palestinian Authority, run by Fatah, imposed harsh new restrictions in a power struggle with Hamas, its archrival. An attempt at reconciliation between the two last fall has since bogged down, and a standoff over salaries and revenue has sent the territory’s economy into free-fall, with many expecting a war with Israel as a result.
Colonel Conricus said the Israeli soldiers, whose injuries were not life-threatening, were hurt as they inspected a Palestinian flag that had been placed along the Gaza-Israel fence Friday morning amid a chaotic riot of hundreds of protesters, who were throwing rocks and trying to tear down the fence — and who were also obscured from view by a morning fog.
He said the episode showed that Israel was right to treat protests at the Gaza fence as a military threat.
“We’ve been speaking about these staged riots for a long time,” Colonel Conricus said. “When Hamas organizes these riots and pushes people towards the fence, what we’re saying is, this isn’t a peaceful demonstration, these people aren’t unarmed, they’re rioters — and among the rioters are actual terrorist operatives who have other things in mind.”
Mr. Netanyahu, who wished the wounded soldiers a speedy recovery from Munich, where he was attending a security conference, also responded angrily to remarks by the prime minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, after he stirred new controversy in defending a Polish law that criminalizes references to Nazi killing sites during the Holocaust as “Polish death camps.”
Asked by an Israeli journalist, Ronen Bergman, if it would violate the new law for him to discuss how his Jewish parents had only escaped from Poland because they learned that their neighbors were about to inform on them to the Nazis, Mr. Morawiecki said that “of course” it was “not going to be seen as criminal to say that there were Polish perpetrators, as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators, as there were Ukrainian,” in addition to Germans.
The mention of “Jewish perpetrators” of the Holocaust, in the same breath as Germans and Poles, prompted a new round of denunciations and demands for action in Israel.
“The Polish prime minister’s remarks here in Munich are outrageous,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement. “There is a problem here of an inability to understand history and a lack of sensitivity to the tragedy of our people. I intend to speak with him forthwith.”
Iyad Abuheweila contributed reporting from Gaza City.