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Heavy fighting between Israel, Gaza

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian militants launched several rockets into southern Israel and Israeli aircraft struck targets in the Gaza Strip yesterday in the heaviest exchange of fire between the sides since a cease-fire ended a major flare-up last year.

In the West Bank, meanwhile, Israeli forces shot and killed a teenage Palestinian protester during a clash late Wednesday, raising tensions already heightened by the death of a Palestinian prisoner.

The late-night killing capped a day of rioting throughout the West Bank in protest at the prisoner's death from cancer and raised the likelihood of further unrest in the Palestinian territories Thursday.

Mohammed Ayyad, a spokesman for the Palestinian Red Crescent, said a 17-year-old Palestinian was killed in a clash between the Israeli army and Palestinian stone-throwers at a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Tulkarem. He was hit by a bullet in the chest, Ayyad said.

In the aerial bombardment, there were no casualties reported, but the violence nonetheless threatened to shatter the calm that has prevailed for more than four months. Israel's new defense minister issued a stern warning.

"We will not allow shooting of any sort [even sporadic] toward our citizens and our forces," Moshe Yaalon, a former military chief of staff, said in a statement.

By nightfall yesterday, calm appeared to have returned. A small al-Qaida-influenced group was suspected. The rocket fire coincided with unrest in the West Bank over the death of a Palestinian prisoner.

Yaalon said he holds the Islamic militant Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, responsible for all such attacks from the seaside strip.

Israel launched an offensive against Hamas last November in response to an increase in rocket fire from Gaza. During eight days of fighting, Israel carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Gaza, while Gaza militants fired hundreds of rockets into Israel.

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