'Firebomb' near-miss for tots in playground

DIRECT HIT: Clouds of smoke billow into the air after an Israeli airstrike hits a government building in Gaza City

CHILDREN had a narrow escape as a "firebomb" balloon fell near them in a nursery playground close to the Gaza border.

Teacher Batsheva Baruchi managed to herd the youngsters inside to a safe room.

"We were saved," she said. "But what if it had fallen next to one of the children?"

The flaming balloon which landed on the Sdot Negev Regional Council nursery on Tuesday followed a blitz of 200 terror rockets aimed at Israel at the weekend.

An Iron Dome anti-missile defence battery was made ready to protect Tel Aviv.

At least four Israelis were injured when a rocket struck the roof of the Buchris family home in the border town of Sderot. Another landed in a kibbutz.

"We were sitting in the living room and all of a sudden, the aquarium exploded and there was smoke everywhere," said Aharon Buchris as he awaited surgery in hospital. He was wounded along with his wife and two teenage daughters.

A missile also struck the courtyard of a synagogue in the town - less than a mile from the Gaza Strip - which was empty at the time. Israeli warplanes hit back with the largest wave of airstrikes in Gaza since the 2014 war.

More than 40 Hamas terror targets - including military compounds - were hit and a number of training camps were flattened. Also targeted were weapons storage facilities and rocket launchers.

Two Palestinian teenagers were killed in an airstrike on Gaza City. And a father and son, aged 35 and 13, died in an explosion which appeared to be related to a terrorist stockpile of explosives.

A five-storey building in a park was reduced to rubble - Israel said it was being used as a training facility by Hamas and sat on top of a tunnel that fed into a "massive" underground network.

After 24 hours of fighting that had threatened to develop into all-out war, the Israeli military accepted an Egypt-mediated ceasefire.

But mortar shells continued to be fired from Gaza and Israeli jets were sent to silence the launchers.

As another "weapon", Israel halted the flow of gas and fuel into Gaza from Tuesday to Sunday. It had already stopped the flow of commercial goods into Gaza last week to protest at flaming kites.

Urging both sides to maintain calm, UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov said in Gaza on Monday: "Yesterday we were on the brink of war, and it has taken the concerted efforts of everyone to make sure we step back from confrontation."

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet: "The Israeli military has delivered its most punishing blow against Hamas since the 2014 war.

"I hope they got the message. If not, they will get it later on."

On a visit to rocket-hit Sderot, Netanyahu said that the "exchange of blows" with Hamas was not over.

"It does not end with a single blow," he added.

"There is no such thing as a ceasefire for us that excludes the flaming kites and the balloons. For a hundred years, we have been fighting terrorism with force - and we are determined to win."

Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said: "We have no intention of tolerating rockets, kites, drones or anything else. Hamas has sustained a heavy blow."

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