Israel appeared to be on the verge of a prolonged escalation of its conflict with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad after close to 300 rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip towards southern Israeli communities on Saturday, striking several homes and leaving one elderly woman severely wounded by shrapnel.
The attacks occurred in advance of Israel’s Independence Day and 10 days before the Eurovision Song Contest.
Dozens of projectiles were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, according to the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.
While the majority of rockets launched by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad fell in open areas, several hit homes in communities in southern Israel, including in Beersheba, Sderot and Ashkelon.
Magen David Adom reported that an 80-year-old woman was severely wounded in her head and limbs by shrapnel. She was evacuated to Barzilai Hospital by MDA teams. Another 50-year-old man in Ashkelon was transferred to hospital moderately injured with shrapnel wounds to his limbs. A 45 year-old man from the northern Negev was transferred to the hospital in fair condition after being injured in the leg.
In addition, MDA treated 10 injured people while they were running to shelter including a 15-year-old girl in Sderot, a 30-year-old man in Ashkelon and a 40-year-old woman in Gan Yavne.
MDA teams also treated 45 victims suffering from stress symptoms including an 11-year-old girl.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held consultations with senior defense officials at the Kirya Military headquarters in Tel Aviv on Saturday afternoon. IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen Aviv Kochavi also held a situational assessment with his deputy Eyal Zamir, the heads of the Southern Command, Military Intelligence, Operations Directorate, Air Force, Home Front Command, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Shin Bet, and other senior officials.
Incoming rocket sirens began on Saturday morning and by the afternoon were heard in Kiryat Malachi and Beit Shemesh.
In response, the IDF targeted more than 120 Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) positions across the Gaza Strip. The Gaza Health Ministry said a 14-month-old baby and her mother were killed by one of the Israeli strikes and at least 18 other Palestinians were wounded throughout Saturday.
Among the targets struck were several Hamas military compounds in the Gaza City neighborhoods of Tel Alawah and Shajiya used for training and manufacturing weapons. Other targets struck belonged to Hamas’ naval force and a joint military compound used by Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLO) in Beit Lahiya.
Several targets belonging to Palestinian Islamic Jihad were struck including military compounds in Deir al-Balah, Tel Sultan, Shati and Khan Yunis.
The IDF also struck two high-trajectory launchers, and several observation posts along the border, as well as a multi-story building in the Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City that Israel said was being used by the Hamas intelligence service. The building reportedly also housed the Gaza offices of Turkey’s Anadolu News Agency.
The military also struck a PIJ cross-border attack tunnel in the Rafiah area of the southern Gaza Strip which, according to IDF Spokesperson Brig.-Gen. Ronen Manelis, was intended by the group to be used to carry out a terrorist attack.
Other targets included an underground Hamas rocket manufacturing facility, which the military said was “unique in its production abilities, which was a mainstay of the organization’s ability to manufacture rockets.”
Another target was the command center of Hamas’ Bureij troops, which included sites for manufacturing weapons. Other targets included a military compound in Tel al-Hawa, which served as a training center for Hamas’ naval wing and several military compounds in Jabalia, Shuja’iyya and Tel al-Hawa.
Two Beit Lahia military compounds shared by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad were also targeted, along with the houses of Islamic Jihad commanders.
"Hamas is the sovereign entity in Gaza, and it operates in coordination with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad," Manelis said. "At this moment, we are attacking military targets of the two organizations, and from last night there are five or six terrorists killed by the two organizations."
The IDF closed all crossings into the Gaza Strip and canceled the fishing zone off of the coast.
Israel’s military has increased troop presence around Gaza, deploying additional troops in the aerial defense, military intelligence and the Home Front Command. Ground troops in infantry units have not been increased subject to a situational assessment on Saturday evening.
“Hamas is responsible for what is happening in the Gaza Strip. We see PIJ as an organization that is not deterred by Hamas, which is avoiding to deal with the terror group,” Manelis said, adding that in the coming hours, “our strikes will be extended to other targets as well.”
According to a military source on Saturday, the rocket barrages are coordinated by Hamas and PIJ, and “will not stop for the next few hours.”
Palestinian Islamic Jihad released a statement on Saturday afternoon threatening the upcoming Eurovision song contest, saying that the group “will prevent the enemy from holding a festival whose purpose is to undermine the Palestinian narrative.”
“The civilians (of Israel) are destined to hell for the continual expansion of the Israeli aggression toward our people and our resistance,” the statement said. “We say to the decision-makers in Israel: do not dream of having quiet while the Palestinian people pay the price. The resistance is committed to respond to the enemy’s aggression and to surprise him.”
"The enemy must know that we will surprise its commanders in the coming hours," Palestinian Islamic Jihad threatened later on Saturday night.
After a barrage of rockets reached as far as Gedera, Yad Benyamin and Beersheba, Hamas threatened to start firing rockets at Tel Aviv if Israel continued to attack targets in Gaza.
The European Broadcasting Union stated that despite the rocket attacks, the rehearsals “will continue as normal” and the situation will be “closely monitored.”
“Safety and security is always of paramount importance for the EBU,” read a statement given to The Jerusalem Post. “We continue to work alongside KAN and the Home Front Command to safeguard the well-being of everyone working in and joining us at Expo Tel Aviv. We will continue to closely monitor the current situation and rehearsals will continue as normal.”
The Home Front Command instructed residents living within 40 km. of the Gaza Strip to consult with heads of local authorities, and remain near protected spaces. Public gatherings were limited to 300 people in enclosed spaces only, and agricultural work was banned. All studies in southern Israel were also canceled due to the security situation.
While Tel Aviv did not open public shelters, many municipalities did including Beersheba. All schools in the South will be closed on Sunday, the local authorities announced Saturday night.
According to the military, the current escalation is due to the violent clashes during on Friday’s weekly March of Return. A PIJ sniper wounded two IDF soldiers stationed along the Gaza border fence, leading to Israel to carry out retaliatory strikes which killed two Palestinians. An IAF air strike overnight killed another two Hamas militants.
“Islamic Jihad is trying not to take responsibility for it,” the military said adding that “This is a serious incident for us.”
Following the violence and expecting a response from groups in the blockaded coastal enclave, the IDF closed several roads near the Gaza border early Saturday morning.
Hamas issued a statement saying that “the resistance will use all its means and capabilities to protect and defend the blood and interests of our people and to confront the Israeli aggression. We affirm our fighters are prepared for all scenarios.”
The IDF has warned that both Hamas and PIJ have restored their military capabilities to their pre-2014 strength, and expect that in a future war communities bordering the Gaza Strip will be incessantly pounded with rockets and mortar attacks.
The rocket barrages come shortly before a potentially tense month, with Ramadan, Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day, Nakba Day, and the one-year anniversary of the opening of the American Embassy in Jerusalem.
The IDF is also preparing for violence ahead of Eurovision, the finale of which will take place in Tel Aviv on May 18 with thousands of tourists expected to attend.
PIJ, the second largest group in the Gaza Strip after Hamas, has been assessed by military intelligence as a factor increasing the risk of an escalation in the blockaded coastal enclave, since it is not under the direct control of Hamas and acts independently for its own interests.
“Facts in the field show that Islamic Jihad does not submit to the authority of Hamas and acts without its knowledge,” the military said on Monday, adding nevertheless that Hamas is still responsible for everything that occurs in the Gaza Strip.Alon Einhorn and Reuters contributed to this report.
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