JERUSALEM (CNN) -- The Israeli military Thursday cracked down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza in response to what Israel called an escalation in rocket attacks.
Palestinian fighters take positions during a clash with Israeli troops Thursday in the Gaza town of Khan Yunis.
Seven Palestinian fighters and two civilians were killed in ground fighting and airstrikes, according to Palestinian security sources.
Five of the militants and the two civilians died when an Israeli tank fired a shell into a house near the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis, Hamas security sources said.
Israel Defense Forces had no information on any casualties.
IDF said a gun battle began when Palestinian militants fired on Israeli troops operating in Khan Yunis. The militants then ran into the house, which was hit by an Israeli tank shell, IDF said.
Two fighters were killed in separate Israeli airstrikes, one near Gaza City and the other near Rafah in southern Gaza, Palestinian security sources said. Three other Hamas militants were injured in the Rafah strike, the sources said.
Israel also targeted areas near Khan Yunis, Rafah and Gaza City with at least four airstrikes, according to IDF.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said the military action was in response to a rocket attack on the Israeli city of Askelon. The strike involved a Grad rocket, which has a greater range than the Qassam rockets normally fired from Gaza.
IDF said Thursday's attack on Askelon -- a major population center in southern Israel -- was the deepest rocket strike into Israeli territory by Gaza militants.
Regev said the strike is "an escalation" from previous rocket attacks, which often hit the town of Sderot or other rural areas of Israel's Negev desert.
"This is the continuation of the policy of the terrorists in Gaza to deliberately target innocent civilians to try and kill as many Israelis as they can," Regev said. "This can't go on, and we will act to defend our people."
Rocket attacks on Israel have increased significantly since Hamas seized control of Gaza in June, prompting a strong Israeli military response in the Palestinian territory. There was some hope of a cease-fire two weeks ago when Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh told an Israeli television reporter he was willing to negotiate a deal with Israel.
Israeli airstrikes Thursday targeted an Islamic Jihad weaponry warehouse and another building used by the militant group in Gaza City; a Hamas post near Rafah, as well as an Islamic Jihad building in central Gaza, according to an IDF spokeswoman.
Another airstrike targeted the home of a top Islamic Jihad militant who was killed in an airstrike last week, Palestinian officials said.
The damaged home was located south of Gaza City and belonged to senior Islamic Jihad militant Muhammad Abdullah, sources inside the group said.
Abdullah, 43, was described by Israel as a senior leader of the Islamic Jihad in central Gaza in charge of manufacturing weapons, in particular rockets and mortar shells. E-mail to a friend