OCCUPIED JERUSALEM, July 7 (Reuters) - A senior Israeli military officer denied Monday that Israel had killed six Hamas militants in an air strike, saying the men died when explosives went off in a tunnel they had dug. Israel’s denial came after Hamas confirmed the deaths of 6 of their members in an Israeli airstrike.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner told reporters Israel was preparing for a possible escalation in hostilities along the Gaza frontier and had called up several hundred reserve troops.
Lerner said daily rocket fire at Israel from Gaza by Hamas fighters meant that whereas last week Israel had previously sought a de-escalation, "now the Israeli military is talking about preparedness for an escalation."
Palestinian militants have kept up their now-daily rocket launching into Israel as pressure mounted from hardliners in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition for tougher action against Hamas, the dominant force in the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli military said its aircraft targeted "terror sites and concealed rocket launchers" in the enclave. It said about 10 rockets hit southern Israel Monday, wounding one soldier.
Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have risen over the killing of three Jewish teenagers in the occupied West Bank, which Israel has blamed on Hamas, and of a 16-year-old Palestinian in occupied East Jerusalem.
Israel Sunday announced it had arrested six Jewish suspects in what police believe was the revenge murder of Mohammad Abu Khdeir, whose charred body was found in Jerusalem Wednesday, a day after Naftali Fraenkel and Gil-Ad Shaer, both 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19, were buried.
The three Jewish seminary students went missing while hitchhiking on June 12. Hamas has neither confirmed nor denied having any role in their disappearance.
Hamas's armed wing said five of its members were killed in air strikes in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, at the Egyptian border Monday. The group had said six men had died, but one was later found to be alive, seriously wounded, under rubble.
Israeli aircraft also attacked in northern Gaza, killing one Hamas fighter, the group said.
Netanyahu has pledged "to do whatever is necessary" to restore quiet to southern Israeli communities. But he also cautioned against any rush toward wider confrontation with Hamas, whose arsenal includes long-range rockets that can reach Israel's heartland and its business capital, Tel Aviv.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, citing a rift with Netanyahu on dealing with Hamas, said Monday his nationalist party was dissolving its merger with the prime minister's conservative Likud but would stay in the governing coalition.
"A situation in which a terrorist group has hundreds of rockets which it can decide any moment to use is intolerable," Lieberman told a news conference. "There have been suggestions that we wait ... but I don't know what we're waiting for."
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, speaking after the six Hamas men were reported killed, accused Israel of committing a "grave escalation" in violence and threatened to retaliate, saying Israel would "pay the price."
Abu Khdeir's death has touched off clashes between police and stone-throwing Arab protesters in East Jerusalem and in several Arab villages in northern and southern Israel. Police said they arrested 30 people during violence Sunday night.
The Gaza flare-up began in mid-June, during Israel's search for the three teens, when Israel arrested many Hamas members across the West Bank. The Israeli military says more than 160 Gaza rockets have struck Israel since.
In Gaza, Hamas has been reeling over an Egyptian crackdown on most of the estimated 1,200 cross-border smuggling tunnels run by the group, which Egypt says are used to take weapons into the Sinai Peninsula.
Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt's military-backed government has declared a terrorist organization, denies Cairo's allegations that it poses a danger to Egyptian security and helps Sinai militants.
Hamas frustrations have also mounted over the failure of a new unity government, formed under a reconciliation pact with President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement, to pay salaries of Hamas's 40,000 public servants in the enclave.
Hamas fatalities Monday were the highest the group has suffered in an Israeli attack since a Gaza war in late 2012. -Agencies