Rocket barrage raises tensions in southern Israel

In response to the rockets fired at Israeli civilians from Gaza, the IDF struck 12 Hamas terror targets in the Gaza Strip (Photo: IDF Spokesperson Unit/Twitter)

Israelis in the South were forced to relocate day camps to bomb shelters or close them altogether as nearly 200 rockets were fired at Israel in one day, injuring seven people and damaging buildings in the region yesterday. 

On Thursday afternoon an official in the Gaza Strip declared that the latest round of violence had ended early and that armed groups in Gaza would cease their fire and that it was up to Israel to do the same.

“The current round in Gaza has ended. The resistance responded to the enemy’s crimes in Gaza,” a Palestinian official said. “The continuation of calm in Gaza depends on (Israel’s) behavior.”

Despite the declared cessation of launches, Palestinians launched a brief round of rockets on Thursday afternoon including one that landed near Beersheba. This was the first time the southern Negev city — some 25 miles north of Gaza — was struck since the Gaza war in 2014 and shows that the militant groups in the coastal enclave have long-range missiles in their arsenal. 

The initial rocket barrage was triggered by the accidental killing by the IDF of two Hamas members after the army mistakenly thought the terror group was staging a cross-border attack. Hamas was running a military exercise at the time. The IDF had been anticipating a revenge attack.

Israel’s Home Front Command cancelled summer day camps and agricultural work was prohibited. Public events were limited to 300 people and rail traffic between Ashkelon and Sderot was halted. Beaches and a local college were also closed.

So far, the military has focused on targeting Hamas infrastructure while avoiding casualties,  in an apparent effort to prevent further escalation of violence. Israel struck 150 terror sites in air strikes, the army said. 

Israeli officials indicated that they are prepared for a wider confrontation with Hamas if need be.

“Whatever is needed to protect our citizens and our soldiers will be done, no matter what the price will be in Gaza,” said Housing Minister Yoav Gallant, who serves on the security cabinet. “Let’s hope for peace, and let’s be ready for war.”

In recent months, Hamas has launched several one-day rocket barrages at Israel with more than 100 rockets in 24 hours each time. The rounds of violence have yet to escalate into full blown war as in 2014, but tensions have remained high in the border communities in southern Israel. 

One source of tension has been the constant stream of kites and balloons sent into Israel with incendiary devices attached to them. These seemingly innocuous objects have silently destroyed thousands of acres of farmland and caused millions of shekels worth of damage over the last few months.

Since March, Palestinians have regularly demonstrated at the Gaza border. The demonstrations escalated to violent confrontations in May coinciding with the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem. Since then, kites and balloons have continued flying over the border in addition to occasional 24-hour eruptions of rocket launches.