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Fifteen die in Israeli airstrikes

Israel pounded Gaza for the second day in a row, trading airstrikes and rocket fire with Palestinian militants and killing 15 of them as the deadliest Gaza violence in over a year showed no signs of abating.

Despite Egyptian efforts to mediate a cease-fire, Palestinians fired more than 100 rockets, some striking major cities in southern Israel and seriously wounding an Israeli civilian. The military responded with more than a dozen airstrikes and the targeted killings of Palestinian militants from various Gaza organizations.

Israel's lauded Iron Dome missile defence system intercepted more than 25 projectiles. Residents were still told to stay close to home and the cities of Beersheba, Ashdod and Ashkelon called off school for Sunday.

Tit-for-tat exchanges between Israel and Palestinians have been routine since the 2009 war but a flare-up of this intensity is rare. The Arab League called the Israeli attacks a "massacre". The United Nations condemned the violence and called on both sides to exercise restraint

"This round in Gaza is far from being over," Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said in a visit to southern Israel. "We will not allow anyone to harm the citizens of the country and we will act against anyone who attempts to launch rockets. They will pay a heavy price and no-one will have immunity."

The latest spate of violence got under way on Friday afternoon when an Israeli airstrike on a car in Gaza City killed top militant commander Zuhair al-Qaissi and two of his underlings. It was the highest-profile killing Israel has carried out in many months, interrupting a period of relative calm on the volatile southern front.

Almost immediately, Gaza militants unleashed a barrage of rockets toward southern Israeli border communities.

So far, militants have fired more than 100 rockets since al-Qaissi's killing, a major escalation from recent months. Palestinian militants fired some 50 rockets toward Israel in the previous three months.

Gaza's militant Islamic Hamas rulers condemned the Israeli strike but, pointedly, their fighters did not fire rockets at Israel. Instead, they quietly allowed other smaller Palestinian militants to unleash salvos.

In previous flare-ups, Hamas has used such a strategy to allow Palestinian militants to burn off their anger, with an eye toward the exchange of strikes eventually quieting down.

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