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Israel, Islamic Jihad Exchange Fire for Second Day




Israel and Islamic Jihad exchanged fire in the Gaza Strip for a second day Monday, a week before Israel's March 2 election.
Islamic Jihad, a militant group allied to Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas, fired more than 20 rockets and mortars towards Israel late morning, the Israeli military said, with the majority intercepted by the country's air defense systems.
Israeli fighter jets and helicopters then targeted a number of Islamic Jihad bases in the strip, including "a military compound in Khan Yunis used by the Islamic Jihad for training and weapons storage," the army said, referring to an area in southern Gaza.
There were no immediate reports of casualties on either side but one projectile from Gaza landed in an empty school playground.
Embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is fighting for re-election as well as preparing to face trial on corruption charges, warned that Israel was prepared to retaliate with more force. 
"Hamas and Islamic Jihad need to understand -- this cannot continue," he said in a statement after discussions with his security chiefs. 
"If they do not stop the fire completely... we will carry out the extensive campaign we have prepared."
On Sunday, in response to Israel's killing of a militant along the border, Islamic Jihad launched more than 20 rockets from Gaza into Israel.
Israel's army said it then targeted the group both in Gaza and on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus. 
The Syria strikes killed two Islamic Jihad fighters and four other Iran-backed militants, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor. 
Since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria, mainly targeting Iranian forces and the Tehran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah, as well as government troops.
Israel rarely confirms responsibility for such strikes, but did so on Sunday, describing the target as a base "used as a hub" for Islamic Jihad activities in Syria. 
- Schools, roads closed -
Israel took a series of precautions amid the rocket fire from Gaza.
The education ministry ordered 65,000 students in towns near Gaza to stay home, postponing exams at universities in Ashkelon, Sderot and Netivot.  
The transport ministry cancelled trains between Ashkelon and Beersheba, a major southern city roughly 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Gaza.  
Sunday's fighting was the most intense between Israel and Islamic Jihad since November, when Israeli airstrikes killed senior commanders from the group. 
The three-day flare-up saw 35 Palestinians killed and more than 100 wounded, according to official figures.
There were no Israeli fatalities despite hundreds of rockets being fired from the strip.
Islamic Jihad has not accepted the informal truce Hamas has agreed with Israel in exchange for an easing of the crippling blockade on Gaza.  
Hamas and Israel last fought a full-scale war in 2014, but smaller flare-ups are relatively common.
- Bulldozed -
The latest escalation with Islamic Jihad came after Israel's military said Sunday it had killed a militant in Gaza who had tried to plant an explosive device near the border fence. 
Israel later confirmed that it extracted the militant's body with a bulldozer.  
A video then appeared on social media, later authenticated by AFP, showing a bulldozer approaching a body while a group of young, apparently unarmed men tried to retrieve it. 
The sound of gunfire is heard and the men run away as the bulldozer scoops up the body.
Israel's hawkish Defense Minister Naftali Bennett has pursued a policy of retaining the bodies of militants from Gaza as bargaining chips to pressure Hamas, which has held those of two Israeli soldiers since 2014.
Palestinian prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, speaking before a weekly cabinet meeting, called the bulldozer incident "a heinous crime."
"(Israel's) occupation kills Palestinians in cold blood and with images that should shame humanity, and in violation of international law which Israel breaches day and night," he said.  

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