Baby among three killed in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in meeting discussing the situation in Gaza with Defense Minister

Twenty-four of the slain protesters were minors, the ministry has said.

It said about 150 rockets had been launched from Gaza towards Israeli territory. Iron dome intercepted 28 rockets and most of the others fell on open ground but there was a direct hit on a house in the Hof Ashkelon region and injuries in Sderot and the Eshkol region.

The Israeli press reported that nine Israelis had been injured.

A statement from the military wing of Hamas, the Islamist group that runs Gaza, claimed responsibility for the rockets.

It said the Palestinian resistance had fired a large number of rockets at "enemy positions in the Gaza envelope".

According to the IDF, approximately 70 rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip at Israel.

The IDF closed several roads near the Gaza border earlier on Wednesday after warning it was concerned of a retaliation from Hamas after two of its elite members were killed in an IDF strike on Tuesday.

The Israeli army said Wednesday's violence began with militants firing guns at an Israeli engineering vehicle, and Israeli troops responding with tank fire.

A watchtower of the Qassam Brigades in Al Zaytun neighbourhood was targeted by the Israeli shelling. No casualties were reported.

The escalation comes after the Hamas leadership convened for a rare meeting in Gaza on Friday.

Deputy Hamas chief in Gaza, Khalil Al-Hayya, told Al Jazeera television: "We can say that actions led by the United Nations and Egypt are in advanced stages and we hope it could yield some good from them".

Two homes in Sderot were also reportedly hit by the shrapnel and several cars were damaged.

Palestinians militants have also fired rockets into Israel and the Israeli military has carried out dozens of air strikes in the enclave.

Later, Palestinians fired about 70 rockets across the border, and Israeli aircraft struck at least a dozen militant targets.

Twenty-four of the slain protesters were minors, the ministry has said.

One Israeli soldier has been shot dead by a Palestinian sniper during the same period, while incendiary devices attached to balloons and kites launched by Palestinians have sparked hundreds of fires in southern Israel, burning some 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of forest and farmland.

Protesters demand the "right of return" to their homes and villages in historical Palestine, from which they were driven in 1948 to make way for the new state of Israel.

In response to the rocket fire, the Israeli Air Force bombed 12 Hamas targets in Gaza.

The Gaza Strip, home to almost two million Palestinians, has been reeling under a crippling Israeli blockade since 2007.

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