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

Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Israel and Gaza militants traded heavy fire Thursday, the third day of the worst escalation of violence in months, which has killed 29 people in the blockaded Palestinian enclave and one in Israel.

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.

Rocket fire from the Gaza Strip killed one person in the central Israeli city of Rehovot and injured at least two others, Israeli police said. Three others sustained shrapnel injuries elsewhere in Israel.

Israeli forces and rescuers deployed around a building in the central city of Rehovot where one person was killed by a Gaza rocket

Cairo was mediating efforts towards a truce between Israel and the Islamic Jihad militant group, while European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called for “an immediate comprehensive ceasefire”.

The United States stopped short of a clear call for a truce, but State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said the casualties were “tragic and heartbreaking”, while urging that steps be “taken to ensure that violence is reduced”.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said “the bloodletting must end now”, and the UN warned of “a negative impact on an already difficult humanitarian situation in Gaza”.

A source close to Islamic Jihad later disclosed that “a final formula for a ceasefire” was said to be under discussion in Egypt.

The Israeli army, however, said just before midnight (2100 GMT) that it was continuing to strike Islamic Jihad targets.

Gaza militants have fired 620 rockets at Israel since Wednesday, the military said, adding that 179 had been intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defence system.

The army said 25 percent of rockets fired from Gaza fell into the territory itself, killing four people, including three minors. AFP could not immediately obtain confirmation from Islamic Jihad or Hamas.

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

A man retrieves blood-stained clothes from the rubble of the house of Ahmed Abu Deka, the Palestinian deputy of the commander of a rocket launch unit killed by Israel

Islamic Jihad confirmed it had lost five military leaders in strikes in recent days, including Ahmed Abu Deka – the deputy of Ali Ghali, commander of a rocket launch unit, who was also killed by Israel on Thursday.

The Israeli army said it had fired at 191 targets across Gaza on Thursday.

The militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine said four of its fighters had also been killed.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said Thursday evening that it had documented 26 dead on the Palestinian side – 13 civilians, seven of them children, as well as four members of armed groups and nine others whose status was not yet determined.

- ‘Wave of escalation’ -

Palestinians inspect the rubble of a building destroyed by an Israeli air strike in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip

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 on Thursday morning.

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

Israeli security forces and emergency rescue personnel assess the damage caused in a neighbourhood in Ashkelon by a rocket fired from the Gaza strip

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

“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 said Mohammad al-Hindi, who heads the group’s political bureau, arrived in Cairo on Thursday for talks with Egyptian intelligence officials.

Map of Israel and the Palestinian territories

An Egyptian source, meanwhile, told AFP 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 an understanding between the sides aimed at halting the hostilities.

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 after an Israeli air strike in the northern Gaza Strip

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 that have often flared into street clashes or gun battles.

On Thursday, two Palestinians died from their 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 that have been spearheaded by Netanyahu, who is also battling corruption charges in court.