Dozens of rockets and mortar shells were fired at southern Israeli communities from the Gaza Strip on Wednesday night and into Thursday, including one barrage that slammed into the city of Sderot, injuring several Israelis, prompting the Israeli Air Force to bomb at least 12 Hamas positions across the Gaza Strip, the military said.
The air force also targeted one car that the army said was being used by terrorists to launch rockets at southern Israel from the Strip. One Hamas operative was reportedly killed in the airstrike. Unconfirmed reports claimed he was the relative of a senior Hamas commander.
Hamas said a 23-year-old pregnant woman and her infant daughter were killed in another strike. The woman’s husband was reported moderately injured.
Wave after wave of rocket attacks set off sirens throughout the night in the Hof Ashkelon, Sha’ar Hanegev, Sdot Negev and Eshkol regions outside Gaza, as well as the town of Netivot, sending thousands of Israelis into bomb shelters, where many bedded down with their families.
One rocket — or possibly shrapnel from an Iron Dome interceptor — damaged a home in Sderot late Wednesday night, police said. At least two rockets struck the city earlier in the day, injuring three people. At least eight others were treated for panic attacks, including two pregnant women who went into labor.
Overnight two rockets exploded in Sderot, one outside a home and another in a factory. Another hit a house in the Hof Asheklon regional council. In all cases the rockets caused damage but no casualties.
In addition, a rocket hit a factory in the Sha’ar Hanegev region, breaking through the roof and damaging equipment inside, a spokesperson for the region said. The factory was empty of people at the time of the rocket attack.
Following the attacks from Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman were meeting overnight with senior officers from the IDF and other security services at the military’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, to discuss the situation and decide on a course of action.
According to the military, at least 70 projectiles were fired at southern Israel as of midnight Wednesday, including the eight that were launched at Sderot earlier in the evening.
At least 11 rockets or mortar shells were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, the army said.
“The majority of the rockets hit open areas,” the IDF said in a statement. Iron Dome does not target rockets projected to strike open areas.
Hamas claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attacks, saying it was avenging the deaths of two operatives killed in an Israeli strike the day before — a strike that came in response to what the IDF initially identified as a shooting attack on its forces, but which was apparently an internal Hamas exercise.
“In response to Israel aggression, the Palestinian resistance has launched a large number of rockets in recent hours at the enemy,” a statement by the group said. “There was a promise [to respond] and now it has been fulfilled.”
The United Nations condemned the Hamas rocket fire.
“I am deeply alarmed by the recent escalation of violence between Gaza and Israel, and particularly by today’s multiple rockets fired towards communities in southern Israel,” UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov said in a statement.
He called on all sides to step “back from the brink” and restore calm.
“If the current escalation…is not contained immediately, the situation can rapidly deteriorate with devastating consequences for all people.”
The Israel Defense Forces said its warplanes conducted airstrikes on 12 “terror targets” in the Gaza Strip in response to the rockets and an earlier shooting attack on a civilian construction vehicle near the border.
An IDF aircraft also targeted a car that the military said was being used by a terror cell launching rockets at Israel. The army later released a video of the airstrike.
One Palestinian man was reportedly killed in the strike, 30-year-old Hamas man Ali al-Ghandour was killed, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry.
According to the military, among the Hamas positions bombed by the fighter jets was a factory where the terror groups constructs the concrete blocks it uses for attack tunnels and a fully operational tunnel opening near the Gaza coast belonging to Hamas’s naval commando unit.
In addition, a number of Hamas facilities used to manufacture and store rockets and other military equipment were hit in the strikes, the IDF said.
According to the army, the concrete factory was originally used as a civilian hotel, but was seized by Hamas during the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense campaign. A year later it was converted a facility to produce the concrete slabs that line the walls of tunnels, the military said.
In addition to al-Ghandour, at least six other Palestinians were injured in the Gaza Strip as a result of the IDF strikes, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
The Israeli military said the terror group, with which it was fought three wars in the past decade, would bear the consequences of any further violence from the Gaza Strip.
“The IDF sees with severity the terrorist activities of Hamas. The IDF is prepared for a variety of scenarios and is determined to fulfill its mission of defending the citizens of Israel,” the army said in a statement.
Residents of southern Israel were told to remain close to bomb shelters in case of additional rockets or mortar shells from Gaza.
The rocket attacks came amid a period of heightened tensions along the Gaza border, following months of clashes and exchanges of fire. On Tuesday, Hamas vowed to avenge the deaths of two of its members killed by IDF tank fire after the army mistakenly thought a military exercise had been a cross-border attack.
On Wednesday afternoon, the military warned that it was anticipating a revenge attack by Hamas after spotting members of the terror group evacuating posts likely to be targeted by Israel in reprisal raids.
Hours later, shots were fired from the northern Gaza Strip at a number of civilian construction vehicles along the border, damaging one of them, the army said.
In response, an IDF tank shelled a nearby Hamas observation post.
Wednesday’s rocket fire represented a major uptick in tensions along the border, amid intensive talks between Israel and Hamas for a long-term ceasefire.
Such an agreement is meant to end not only rocket launches and shootings from Gaza but also the regular incendiary kite and balloon attacks from the Palestinian enclave that have burned large swaths of land in southern Israel and caused millions of shekels of damage.
Throughout Wednesday, at least 11 fires were sparked in southern Israel by airborne arson devices launched from the Gaza Strip. Israeli firefighters extinguished all of them, according to a spokesperson for Fire and Rescue Services.