Hamas accuses Israel of planning for war after air strikes kill three

Egypt condemns latest attacks on Palestinians in Gaza as tensions rise across the Middle East

Jerusalem

Hamas has accused Israel of an "unjustified escalation" against Gaza after a series of air strikes in the past two days left three Palestinians dead.

The rising tensions come at a delicate time in the region, with French peacekeepers injured in a roadside bomb yesterday in southern Lebanon, the third attack on UN peacekeepers there this year. In Egypt, Islamists sympathetic to Hamas, which rules Gaza, have gained ground in preliminary election results, prompting concern in Israel. Egypt condemned the Israeli strikes on Gaza, and said it was engaged in urgent mediation to prevent an escalation in the Palestinian territory.

Palestinians have reacted with fury to Israeli air strikes that killed a 42-year-old man in his home. Twenty-five people were injured in the attack on a Hamas training ground, Palestinian medics said. Israel expressed its regret, but blamed Hamas for choosing "to operate while embedded within a civilian population, using them as a human shield to protect their actions".

A day earlier, an Israeli strike killed two Palestinians in a car in Gaza City, wounding six bystanders. One of the men was named as Essam al-Batsh, the alleged mastermind of a suicide bombing in Eilat in 2007 that killed three Israelis. The men were accused of planning to infiltrate Israel from Egypt to mount attacks. Palestinian militants responded by firing rockets at Israel, but all fell wide of any target.

The escalation brings to an end weeks of relative calm. Hamas, which is committed to armed resistance against Israel, has largely observed a ceasefire since the offensive on Gaza in 2008-2009 that left up to 1,400 Palestinians dead, but Israel holds it responsible for any rockets fired by splinter groups.

Benny Gantz, Israel's army chief of staff, said last month that a new conflict with Gaza was "drawing closer" because of increased rocket attacks, prompting speculation that Israel might mount an offensive before a government sympathetic to Hamas comes to power in Egypt. The Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum, accused Israel of an "unjustified escalation against Gaza" and called on Egypt to intervene. He said the Israeli strikes were designed "to test the response of the Arab world... to a future war against Gaza and against the Palestinians in general".

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