Israeli forces fire rockets from their Iron Dome defence system in the southern city of Ashkelon to intercept rockets launched from the Gaza strip, on May 10, 2023

Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Israel and Gaza militants traded more heavy fire Thursday, the third day of the worst escalation of violence in months that has killed 26 people in the blockaded Palestinian enclave.

Air strikes by the Israeli army since Tuesday have killed fighters as well as civilians, including several children, said officials in the crowded coastal territory.

The rubble of a house destroyed by an Israeli air strike in Khan Yunis, Gaza, seen on May 11, 2023

Cairo mediated in efforts toward a truce between Israel and the Islamic Jihad militant group, while France, Germany, Jordan and Egypt called for an end to the violence.

“The bloodletting must end now,” said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock after hosting her three counterparts for talks in Berlin.

Militants in the Gaza Strip have fired more than 550 rockets at Israel, causing no casualties so far, the Israeli military said.

A plume of smoke rises above buildings during an Israeli strike east of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 11, 2023

Of these, over 440 rockets made it over the border and at least 154 were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defence system, while one in five fell inside Gaza, it said.

Shops in Gaza were shuttered and the streets largely abandoned as Israeli military aircraft circled over the territory where several buildings lay in ruins.

Islamic Jihad confirmed it has lost five military leaders in strikes in recent days, including Ahmed Abu-Deka.

Abu Deka was the deputy of Ali Ghali, the commander of a rocket launch unit killed by Israel earlier on Thursday.

The Gaza health ministry said a man had been killed in southern Gaza, with the Islamic Jihad confirming it was Abu Deka.

Fresh rockets at southern Israel followed the Israeli strike, AFP correspondents said.

Another militant group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said four of its fighters had been killed.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said he had instructed the security establishment “to take all the measures necessary, to prepare additional actions and maintain readiness for the possibility of increased fire”.

- ‘Wave of escalation’ -

Palestinians inspect the rubble of a building, following an Israeli air strike, in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on May 11, 2023

In Gaza City’s Al-Rimal district, Mamoun Radi, 48, said: “We hope that the wave of escalation will end, but we support revenge for the martyrs.

“Israel assassinated a leader of (Islamic) Jihad at dawn today because it does not want calm.”

Across southern Israel, sirens wailed intermittently through the night and Thursday morning.

Miriam Keren, 78, an Ashkelon resident, said a Gaza rocket had destroyed a workshop and damaged her house.

Israeli security forces and emergency rescue personnel asses the damage caused in a neighbourhood in Ashkelon by a rocket fired from the Gaza strip, on May 10, 2023

“All the shrapnel is in the room; the house was shaken very powerfully, the glasses fell, the walls were damaged,” she told AFP.

“Luckily I have a safe room and I entered it immediately and closed the door.

“This isn’t the first time the house was hit but I’m not afraid, neither was I yesterday. You’re shocked for a moment but it’s not about fear. It’s more unpleasant, very unpleasant.”

- Ceasefire efforts -

An Islamic Jihad source told AFP that senior member Mohammad al-Hindi, head of the group’s political department, would arrive in Cairo on Thursday for talks with Egyptian intelligence officials.

Map of Israel and the Palestinian territories

An Egyptian source meanwhile told AFP that a security delegation from Cairo would be in Tel Aviv later Thursday for talks with Israeli officials on a ceasefire.

Israeli officials confirmed Egypt’s involvement in attempts to facilitate understandings between the sides toward halting the hostilities.

On Thursday, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said “we stand by Israel’s right to defend itself”, and that Washington was engaged in efforts “towards a quick deescalation”.

Both Hamas, which rules Gaza, and Islamic Jihad are considered terrorist groups by Israel and the United States.

A Palestinian woman looks at the rubble of a building, following an Israeli air strike, in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on May 11, 2023

This week’s Gaza clashes are the worst since a three-day escalation in August killed 49 Palestinians, with no Israeli fatalities.

Violence has also flared in the occupied West Bank, where the Israeli army has staged repeated raids against militants which have often flared into street clashes or gun battles.

On Thursday, a Palestinian died from his wounds after being shot by the Israeli army in a raid the day before in the West Bank city of Qabatiya, the Palestinian health ministry said.

The conflict has escalated since veteran leader Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power late last year heading a coalition with extreme right and ultra-Orthodox parties.

Israel has also been shaken by its biggest domestic political crisis in decades as mass protests have flared against plans to reform the justice system, spearheaded by Netanyahu who is also battling corruption charges in court.