( ap ) - Escalating Israeli-Palestinian fighting left 24 Palestinians dead Friday and early Saturday, including a 13-month-old baby and two teenagers, and clouded peace efforts as Israel threatened a new invasion of Gaza. Nine civilians were among the dead, and dozens were wounded, authorities said.
In all, 57 people have died since clashes between Israel and extremists affiliated with Gaza's ruling Hamas movement spiked Wednesday. At least 24 were civilians. An Israeli man was also killed by Palestinian rocket fire that grew more ominous when it struck closer to Israel's heartland.
Hamas said the baby girl, Malak Karfaneh, died just before midnight Friday in an Israeli strike on Beit Hanoun, a northern town where militants often launch rockets at Israel. But local residents said one of those rockets fell short and landed in the area of the child's house.
The Israeli military, which sent troops, tanks and aircraft to target Gaza rocket squads, said it only attacks rocket-launching operations, but said militants sometimes operate within civilian areas. On Saturday, it said troops identified 15 hits in its operations against rocket squads and militants laying explosive devices against Israeli targets.
Fierce fighting erupted Saturday near the northern town of Jebaliya, pitting Israeli troops backed by tanks and attack aircraft against Palestinian militants launching crude rockets and mortars.
Among those killed were at least nine militants, but also at least eight civilians, including a 17-year-old girl and her 16-year-old brother, a 45-year-old man and his 20-year-old son and two sisters thought to be in their early 20s.
The sisters and another civilian were killed by tank shells that struck two houses in separate attacks, Palestinian officials said. Rescue teams evacuated a 7-month-old boy from one of the houses, unharmed.
The Israeli military said it would look into reports of tank shells hitting houses.
Tareq Dardouna, a resident of the Jebaliya area, told The Associated Press that a relative was killed outside his home in the crossfire that began raging at 3 a.m.
"His body is still on the ground," Dardouna said in a phone interview from his home, where he was tending to four wounded people. "Ambulances tried to come, but they came under fire. ... We are in a real war."
The Israeli military said five soldiers were wounded in the clashes. Nearly two dozen rockets landed Saturday in southern Israel, including three that struck in and around the city of Ashkelon, 11 miles north of Gaza, the military said. Two children and a woman were slightly wounded in the Ashkelon attacks, the military said.
Hamas fighters were unbowed by the spiraling violence.
"The Zionist forces failed in Gaza before," said Abu Obeida, a spokesman for Hamas' military wing. "We will respond to any aggression ... with every available means."
Israel evacuated its troops and settlers from Gaza in late 2005, but militants proceeded to fire rockets from the abandoned territory. Militants raised the stakes significantly by firing Iranian-made rockets into Ashkelon, a coastal city of 120,000 people.
While Ashkelon had been targeted sporadically before, it never suffered direct hits. The assault increased the pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to protect a widening circle of people at risk.
Next week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to visit the region to try to prod Israel and moderate Palestinians forward in their bid to reach a peace accord by the end of the year. The two sides declared that goal at a U.S.-sponsored conference in November.
Senior European diplomat Javier Solana will also visit the region beginning Sunday to encourage Israeli and Palestinian leaders to keep the peace process on track, his office said in a statement.
But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' efforts are compromised by the fact that he only rules the West Bank, while Gaza is controlled by the violently anti-Israel Hamas. And Israel's fragile governing coalition would be hard pressed to make concessions to the Palestinians while Gaza militants pummel southern Israel with rockets.