GAZA/JERUSALEM - A humanitarian truce in the Gaza Strip collapsed on Sunday after a barrage of rockets fired by Palestinian militants was met with fierce Israeli shelling, in a fresh setback to efforts to secure a permanent ceasefire.
Israeli tanks and artillery army pounded targets along the coastal enclave, sending thick plumes of black smoke rising into the sky, signalling an end its unilateral, 24-hour truce in the wake of the missile salvoes.
Palestinian witnesses reported heavy shelling east of Gaza City, with ambulances immediately racing towards the area. At least three deaths were reported in separate strikes. More than 1,000 people, mainly civilians, have been killed in Gaza. "Following Hamas' incessant rocket fire throughout the humanitarian window, which was agreed upon for the welfare of the civilian population in Gaza, the (army) will now resume its aerial, naval and ground activity in the Gaza Strip," a military statement said.
Israel and the Hamas Islamists who control Gaza had agreed to a 12-hour ceasefire on Saturday to allow Palestinians to stock up on vital supplies and retrieve bodies trapped under the rubble.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet decided to extend the quiet until midnight on Sunday, on condition that its forces could continue to track down and destroy militant tunnels that criss-cross the Gaza border.
Hamas rejected the proposal and said its forces would keep fighting as long as Israeli troops remained in Gaza. The Islamist group said it had fired at the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Ashdod. No damage or injuries were reported.
Netanyahu was due to convene his cabinet later on Sunday to decide how to move forward, and at least one senior minister said Israel must step up its offensive. "After what we saw this morning, it is clear we need to resume fighting with even greater force," Communications Minister Gilad Erdan told Army Radio.
Israel launched its Gaza offensive on July 8 to halt rocket attacks by Hamas and its allies, which have struggled under an Israeli-Egyptian economic blockade on Gaza and were angered by a crackdown on their supporters in the nearby occupied West Bank.
After aerial and naval bombardment failed to quell the outgunned guerrillas, Israel poured ground forces into the Gaza Strip 10 days later, looking to knock out Hamas's rocket stores and destroy the vast network of tunnels.