JERUSALEM — Gaza militants resumed their rocket fire into Israel early Wednesday and Israeli forces struck back against targets in the Palestinian coastal enclave in a simmering confrontation set off by Israel’s assassination of a senior Islamic Jihad commander on Tuesday.
Though the death toll rose in Gaza, and much of southern Israel was paralyzed by air raid warnings, both sides appeared to be carefully measuring their actions.
After a quiet night and a resumption of hostilities early Wednesday, Israel and Gaza teetered between a quick resolution to this round of violence, and a possible escalation — either intentional or through a misstep — that could lead to a much broader conflict.
By early afternoon, the death toll in Gaza over the two days of violence had risen to at least 21, according to Palestinian health officials, including several civilians. At least 70 people were wounded, officials said.
No deaths have been reported in Israel as a result of the rocket fire, which triggered multiple sirens on Wednesday and sent residents running for bomb shelters. But the Magen David Adom emergency medical service said it had treated 48 people as a result of the rocket fire that began on Tuesday, two of them lightly injured by shrapnel; the rest were wounded while running for cover or showed stress symptoms.
Issuing a stern warning to Islamic Jihad, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was not looking for an escalation but would respond harshly to each rocket attack.
“Islamic Jihad would do well to understand this right now, instead of when it will be too late,” Mr. Netanyahu said at the start of a special cabinet meeting. “I believe that Islamic Jihad is starting to internalize this message. They understand that we will continue to strike them without mercy. They understand that Israel is very strong and that our will is very great.”
Islamic Jihad appeared on Wednesday to have scaled back the range of its rocket fire, if not the intensity of its barrages, in response to the killing of its commander, Baha Abu al-Ata. Most rockets appeared aimed at Israeli cities and communities within a few miles of the Gaza border, with the militants refraining from firing at the populous Tel Aviv area to the north, as they did initially on Tuesday.
Islamic Jihad’s military wing took responsibility for all the rocket fire in a statement on Wednesday.
In addition to the attack that killed Mr. Abu al-Ata, the group also blamed Israel for the attempted assassination of Akram al-Ajouri, an Islamic Jihad leader whose home in Damascus, Syria was also hit by an airstrike before dawn on Tuesday. The group said its “account with the Zionist enemy is still open,” adding, “our jihad is ongoing and our operations are continuing.”
Israel has remained silent about the attack on Mr. al-Ajouri, which killed his son and another man, neither taking nor denying responsibility. The Israeli military said on Wednesday that it was limiting its airstrikes to Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza, including rocket-launching crews.
Islamic Jihad has repeatedly tried to disrupt the undeclared truce with sporadic rocket fire over the last year, Israeli officials said. They specifically accused Mr. Abu al-Ata, who was killed along with his wife in a missile strike before dawn on Tuesday, of directing the attacks.
Still, the situation remained highly volatile. Islamic Jihad made it clear on Tuesday that its real revenge for the killing was yet to come, suggesting that the rocket fire was just a prelude.
In Gaza, schools and most businesses remained closed and people mostly kept indoors, wary of Israeli strikes and the danger of misfired rockets falling short of the border.
Israeli schools within a 25-mile radius of the Gaza border were also closed.
The Israeli defense minister, Naftali Bennett, issued his own warning to enemies on all fronts, saying, “Whoever plans to harm us by day will never be sure that they will make it though the night.”
Iyad Abuheweila contributed reporting from Gaza.