Israeli aircraft struck the Islamic Jihad militant group in both the Gaza Strip and Syria late Sunday, killing two fighters after the group fired a barrage of rockets at Israel.

In the latest tit-for-tat violence ahead of a fresh general election in the Jewish state, the Israeli Air Force targeted “Islamic Jihad terror sites” throughout Gaza and near the Syrian capital Damascus, a military statement said.

It followed more than 20 rockets and mortars fired from Gaza, themselves a response to the killing of a Jihad militant along the Gaza-Israel border. Islamic Jihad, which along with allied group Hamas has fought three wars with Israel since 2008. It operates in both Gaza, which lies to the west of Israel, and Syria, which is to the north of the Jewish state.

The Israeli army said it had struck Islamic Jihad targets on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, including a base “used as a hub” for the group’s activities in the country. Islamic Jihad also confirmed early Monday that two of its fighters were killed.

Since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria, mainly targeting government forces as well as allied Iranian forces and Hezbollah fighters.

But it is only a few times that Israel has claimed the responsibility of such strikes.

Bulldozer scoops the bodies

The Israeli military said it had struck “dozens” of Islamic Jihad targets throughout Gaza. A military aircraft also fired at a group of men preparing to launch rockets near the border, the Israeli army said. “A hit was identified,” a statement said, with health officials in Gaza saying four people were wounded in the strikes.

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Earlier Sunday, more than 20 rockets and mortars were launched from Gaza towards Israel, setting off warning sirens in the southern city of Ashkelon and several other locations, the army said. More than a dozen were intercepted by the Jewish state’s Iron Dome missile defence system, the Israeli army said, adding there were no reports of serious injuries in Israel.

Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the rockets, calling them a response to the killing of one its fighters along the Gaza border early Sunday.

Israel said the man had been part of a cell seeking to plant an explosive device on the border fence.

A video later emerged on social media showing a bulldozer approaching a body while a group of young, apparently unarmed men, were trying to retrieve it.

The sound of gunfire is heard and the men ultimately run away as the bulldozer scoops up the body.

Israel’s hawkish Defence Minister Naftali Bennett has pursued a policy of retaining the bodies of militants from Gaza as bargaining chips to pressure Hamas, which has held the bodies of two Israeli soldiers since 2014.

Hamas is also believed to be detaining two Israeli citizens who entered Gaza separately and whose families say suffer from mental illness.

Israel has a general election on March 2, its third in less than a year after deadlocked polls in April and September 2019.

Hamas and Israel last fought a full-scale war in 2014 but smaller flareups are relatively common.

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In November, Islamic Jihad and Israel fought a three-day conflict that left 35 Palestinians dead and more than 100 wounded, according to official figures.

Under the informal agreements in the past year, Israel has slightly eased a blockade of the impoverished Palestinian enclave in exchange for relative calm.

AFP with additional inputs from GVS News Desk