( dpa ) - Israel killed three Palestinian civilians in a botched strike Wednesday, while militants launched 42 rockets and mortars at the Jewish state, in response to bloody Israeli-Palestinian fighting Tuesday which left 18 Gazans dead.
Israeli troops in the West Bank also killed a senior leader of the radical Islamic Jihad, who had been on the "wanted list" for years.
An Israeli army spokeswoman said the target of the botched strike was "a vehicle carrying gunmen responsible for rocket launching," but another vehicle was hit instead. Palestinian medical officials said three members of the same family were killed, among them an adolescent.
The circumstances surrounding the strike on the wrong vehicle were "under operational investigation," Major Avital Leibovich said.
Troops in the West Bank, meanwhile, shot dead senior Islamic Jihad commander Walid Obeidi during an early-morning arrest raid in the village of Qabatia, south of the northern West Bank city of Jenin.
An Israeli military spokesman said he tried to resist arrest and opened fire at the troops.
Israel says Obeidi, 38, masterminded an April 2006 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, which killed 11 people, as well as other attacks.
Approximately half the projectiles launched Wednesday landed in Israel, hitting the area of Sderot, which lies about one kilometre east of the northern Gaza Strip, and also reaching southern Ashkelon, about 13 kilometres north of the salient.
There were no reported injuries and damage was slight.
The Israeli cities and villages adjacent to the Strip had been bracing themselves for rocket and mortar attacks, after Hamas vowed to retaliate for the deaths Tuesday of 19 Palestinians, in the bloodiest fighting between the two sides in more than a year.Among the dead was the 23-year-old son of powerful Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar. Israeli media quoted officials as expressing fears that the killing of Hussam al-Zahar could damage efforts to finalize a prisoner exchange deal that would include the release of an Israeli soldier held captive in Gaza since June 2006.
The death toll in Tuesday's fighting was the highest since a botched Israeli artillery strike north of Gaza City in November 2006 killed 18 Palestinians, many of them civilians and members of the same family.
In addition to the Palestinian fatalities, a Hamas sniper killed a 20-year-old Jewish volunteer from Ecuador as he worked in a potato field of a kibbutz (agricultural commune) bordering the Strip.
Israeli police declared an emergency situation in Sderot and other communities neighbouring Gaza, after 50 rockets and mortars were launched at Israel on Tuesday.
Despite an announcement that schools would be open Wednesday, some 25 per cent of school pupils did not attend classes, while 50 per cent of kindergarten toddlers remained at home, the Yediot Ahronot daily reported.
The escalation in violence comes days after US President George W Bush ended a three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian areas, as a result of which the parties began long-delayed peace negotiations Monday on the "core issues" of their mutual conflict.
A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the latest escalation proved that Israel was not serious about peace talks with the Palestinians.
"The Israeli side should create the suitable atmosphere for the progress of negotiations," Nabil Abu Rudeineh told Voice of Palestine radio, and called on the international community to apply pressure on Israel.
Also Wednesday, Israeli police cleared two unauthorized settler outposts in the northern West Bank.
The five people at one of the outposts, Harchivi, near Nablus, fled when police arrived, spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
The 20 settlers at the second outpost, Shvut Ami, also in the Nablus area, also left without having to be forcibly evacuated, he said.
It marked the first time outposts have been cleared since the Annapolis conference on November 27, at which Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas renewed the peace process.
Settlers have erected more than 100 outposts without government permission in the West Bank, in an attempt to claim as much land as possible in advance of any peace treaty.
The 2003 road map, which is being implemented congruently with the negotiations, calls on Israel to "immediately" evacuate all outposts erected since March 2001.