For much of the last week, Israel and the militant Palestinian group Hamas have been trading blows: Israeli warplanes and tanks have been firing into the densely populated Gaza strip, while Palestinian fighters lob mortars at Israeli troops — it's the sharpest uptick in hostilities since Israel's 2014 invasion of Gaza.
The escalation of violence comes as Israeli soldiers crossed into Gaza on Wednesday as part of an operation the army says will root out and destroy underground tunnels that lead into Israel.
The frontier between Israel and Gaza has been mostly quite for sometime and its unclear why Israel chose to move into Gaza this past week. But Israeli officials have hinted that the recent capture of Hamas member Mahmoud Atouna may have provided new intelligence the militant group's underground network.
"Atouna provided his interrogators much information about the tunnel routes in the northern Gaza Strip, its tunnel-digging methods, the use of private homes and public buildings to bore tunnels and materials used," Shin Bet said in a statement on Thursday.
In response to Israeli incursion into Gaza, Hamas and its allies have been firing off mortar shells at Israeli troops, though no soldiers have yet been injured in the attacks. Israel has retaliated with airstrikes and tanks shiells. On Thursday three Palestinian children were wounded in an Israeli airstrike and a 54-year-old Palestinian woman was killed by fragments of an Israeli tank shell fired during the violence.
Speaking at a Gaza mosque during Friday prayer, the deputy-head of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, told worshippers that the Islamists group was "not calling for war" with Israel, and that Egypt and other parties were working behind the scenes to defuse tensions.
"We are not calling for war but we will not allow incursions at all," Haniyeh said. "The resistance will not allow the establishment of a so-called buffer zone inside the borders of the Gaza Strip." Haniyeh said that Israeli forces had intruded "150 to 199 meters on the pretext of searching for tunnels."
Israel, for its part, defended its decision to move into the strip.
"The repeated attacks against the IDF activities to locate and destroy cross-border tunnels will not be tolerated," said Israeli military spokesman Peter Lerner in a statement. "Hamas's diabolical plan to infiltrate into Israeli communities must be stopped."
But Hamas has claimed that the tunnels were dug years ago for use during the 2014 conflict, and are now defunct. The Israeli government was looking for "false victories," the militant group said in a statement released Friday. In the last six weeks, 11 Hamas militants have died in tunnel collapses, and the Israeli military claims the group is trying to rebuild its underground network in preparation for a potential future conflict.
The recent exchange of fire raises the specter of yet another all-out war between Hamas and the Israelis. The last time Israel invaded the strip, in the summer of 2014, more than 2,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed, and 67 Israeli soldiers and six civilians in Israel were killed by rockets and attacks. That war ended in an Egyptian-brokered truce, and both the Israelis and Hamas have said they want the ceasefire to stay in place.
The ceasefire hasn't managed to completely halt the violence. Since the beginning of 2015, 30 Palestinians have been killed and nearly 1400 injured by Israeli soldiers in Gaza during cross border shootings and military incursions.
After the week of violence, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov called on both sides to "exercise maximum restraint" in order to "prevent the risk of escalation."
Reuters contributed to this report