JERUSALEM — Thousands of Gaza residents on Monday attended funerals of three Palestinian boys killed by an Israeli airstrike along the security fence with Israel the day before.
The Israeli military said three figures had been spotted trying to sabotage the security fence and had appeared to be laying an explosive device under the cover of darkness.
Gaza’s militant factions accused Israel of killing the boys “in cold blood” and said claims they had been planting a bomb were fabricated.
In the light of day Monday, there appeared to be no evidence of an explosive device in the area. But there were suggestions in Israel that the boys might have been sent by militants as scouts, to test whether the area was under military surveillance or to cut a hole in the fence for others to go through later.
It was just the latest deadly episode in the caldron of tensions that the border area has become.
The dead were identified as Khaled Abu Saeed, 14; Abdul Hamid Abu Dhaher, 13; and Muhammad al-Satari, 13.
In the village where the boys lived, Wadi al-Salqa, in the southern Gaza Strip, there was talk that they might have been laying nets for hunting birds, though the security fence — a known danger zone, especially at night — is hardly an obvious place to catch wildlife.
The boys were neighbors and lived about a mile from the border. Their relatives said they did not know what they were doing by the fence at night.
The mourning tents were filled with visitors and decorated with the banners of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Israeli leaders have come under increasing political and public pressure either to reach a stable cease-fire arrangement with Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, or to go in and try to crush Hamas by force.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled on Monday that he preferred to give more time to efforts by Egyptian and United Nations mediators to reach a truce agreement.
Israel’s hard-line defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said he saw no chance of a cease-fire with Hamas without “dealing the toughest blow that we can.” But he acknowledged that he was in a minority in the security cabinet, where decisions on broad military operations are made, and where, he said, most of the members “do not think like me.”
Around the time of the airstrike that killed the boys Sunday night, residents of Israeli communities along the border blocked a main interchange in Tel Aviv.
Their protest came after an intensive flare-up of violence over the weekend, the fourth in recent months.
Gaza militants fired nearly 40 rockets into southern Israel between Friday night and Saturday morning, and the Israeli Air Force retaliated with strikes on more than 90 unmanned militant targets in Gaza.
Aside from sporadic rocket and mortar fire, incendiary balloons flown from Gaza have set hundreds of fires on the Israeli side of the border, charring forests and farmland.
Thousands of Palestinians continue to attend weekly Friday protests along the border that often include the hurling of grenades and firebombs and efforts to breach the fence, according to the military.
Called the “Great March of Return,” the protests are orchestrated by Hamas to pressure Israel into lifting its blockade on the coastal territory, imposed with Egypt’s help, and to press claims to lands in what is now Israel. Israel says it acts to prevent infiltrations and protect nearby civilian communities.
More than 200 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since the protests began on March 30, according to Gaza officials. They said another man, 27, was shot dead during a protest on Monday in northern Gaza near the border with Israel.