Gaza violence spirals
Two Grad rockets slammed into the Israeli city of Beersheva on Wednesday, as Gaza militants vowed to strike deep into the Jewish state after raids killed eight Gazans.
The first rocket struck the centre of Beersheva around dawn, moderately injuring one man, while the second, which was fired several hours later, landed harmlessly in an open area, police said.
The army said seven mortars had also landed in Israel.
Beersheva is about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Gaza, and much further away than the Israeli cities regularly targeted by Palestinian militants.
Another Grad rocket hit the outskirts of the city on February 23, but this was the first time since the 2008-9 war that such a projectile had landed in the middle of the city, home to 186,000 people.
The Al Quds Brigades, Islamic Jihad's armed wing, claimed responsibility for both attacks as well as for the overnight firing of another Grad at the port city of Ashdod, and vowed to continue targeting cities deep inside Israel.
"The Al Quds Brigade has entered a new phase of bombing targets which are further away, where thousands of Israelis live," Abu Ahmad said.
"The stage of targeting Sderot and Ashkelon in southern Israel are behind us," he said, referring to a small town close to the border, and to a port city which lies 18 kilometres (11 miles) to the north.
"From now on, there are no more red lines for the resistance as long as the enemy ... keeps killing civilians," he said.
Grad rockets have a longer range than mortars or the crude, homemade Qassams normally used by Gaza militants, and can travel up to 30 miles (50 kilometres).
During the morning, the Israeli air force targeted militants on the eastern side of Gaza City, but no one was injured, Palestinian medical sources said.
Over the past week, there has been a significant increase in Palestinian rocket attacks and retaliatory air strikes, which has ramped up tensions between Israel and Gaza's Islamist Hamas rulers and raised fears of a large-scale Israeli military incursion.
Wednesday's attacks came a day after Israel mounted a series of raids on targets in the eastern sector of Gaza City, killing eight people.
Ahead of the funerals, which were to be attended by Hamas premier Ismail Haniya, thousands of people were gathering in central Gaza City, an AFP correspondent said. Hamas has declared a day of mourning for the dead.
Four of the dead were militants from the Al Quds Brigades whom the army said were trying to fire rockets towards Israel from the Zeitun neighbourhood.
Several hours earlier, four civilians had been killed and 12 injured in the nearby district of Shejaiya when Israeli artillery fired towards a house outside which a group of youngsters had been playing football, Palestinian medics said.
Two of the dead were children, aged 11 and 16.
Overnight, the Al Quds Brigades fired a Grad rocket at Ashdod but it fell short, prompting Israel to mount an air strike which injured two of their militants, one critically.
The dramatic increase in tension along the Gaza border prompted warnings from Israeli officials, with Home Front Defence Minister Matan Vilnai warning a fresh war on the Islamist Hamas movement was looming.
"It's only a matter of time until we clash with Hamas again, and again teach them the rules," he told army radio as officials in Beersheva closed schools for the day and urged people to remain close to their bomb shelters.
"I have no doubt that it will happen -- they are taking all the steps leading in that direction."
The Hamas premier Haniya also called for military intervention -- asking the UN Security Council to take action "to protect our people and punish the Israeli occupation," a statement said.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, currently in Moscow, condemned "the Israeli escalation which has cost the lives of many Palestinians, including children."
But although Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu expressed regret over the civilian deaths, the premier blamed Hamas for "using civilians as human shields."
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also said he was "very concerned" at the rising violence in and around Gaza, his office said.