Israel launches scores of airstrikes as Gaza fire persists

A Military Police car blocks a road leading to Zikim beach after it was closed to visitors due to escalating rocket fire from the Gaza Strip toward southern Israel

A Hamas militant was also killed in the strikes and at least 12 others injured, the health ministry said.

Both sides have said they are working toward a cease-fire agreement, though continued rocket fire may dampen efforts.

Israeli television broadcast images of a house and cars that were reportedly damaged by the rockets in Sderot.

"As of now, approximately 70 rocket launches were identified from the Gaza Strip at Israeli territory", the army said in a statement.

It was not clear if the escalation would derail Egyptian-brokered indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas to reach a long-term ceasefire.

The majority of the rockets hit open areas while four were intercepted, it said.

Sirens sounded in Israeli areas near Gaza, warning residents to seek immediate shelter, the Israeli army said.

Smoke plumes could be seen rising from Gaza City following the military's announcement it was targeting "terror sites in the Gaza Strip".

"Hamas hit the "enemy" with a large number of rockets", it said.

Hamas claimed responsibility for the rocket attack and a tweet issued by a spokesman for the militant group, Abdullatif al-Kanoo, was translated by Al Jazeera as saying that the Palestinian resistance "is in self-defense and has a duty to respond to the aggression against our people".

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UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov said in an overnight statement: "I am deeply alarmed by the recent escalation of violence between Gaza and Israel, and particularly by today's multiple rockets fired towards communities in southern Israel".

"War isn't a real option at this stage, and serious concessions on Gaza are not possible for this government without solving the problem of the Israeli captives in Gaza and the Palestinian prisoners in Israel".

It was the third severe flare-up of violence since July and came despite attempts by United Nations officials and Egypt to secure a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas. Israel has imposed a crippling 11-year blockade on the Gaza Strip in response, during which time it has waged three wars in Gaza, most recently in 2014.

Gaza's Health Ministry said early Thursday that three people were killed in the Israeli strikes, including a 23-year-old pregnant woman and her 18-month-old child, as well as a 30-year-old member of Hamas's armed military wing.

"We have had another night of escalation and we are not seeing the end", he said.

In response, Israel responded with tank fire, which provoked a barrage of rocket fire into Israel and further airstrikes in Gaza.

The incident occurred while a group of senior Hamas leaders from overseas were visiting Gaza to discuss the ceasefire efforts with local leaders.

"Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman reassured the mayor of Sderot and the heads of the regional councils in the vicinity of the Gaza border that "we will do what needs to be done" to restore calm to region".

Tension along the Israel-Gaza border has escalated since late March, when Hamas launched what would become regular mass protests along Israel's perimeter fence with Gaza.

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