The IDF began attacking terror targets in the Gaza Strip in response to over 21 rockets were fired towards southern Israel communities on Sunday in several rocket barrages after Hamas and Palestinian Islamic
Jihad (PIJ) threatened to avenge the death of a terrorist by the IDF after he tried to plant explosives along the Gaza border fence.
The IDF said as of 11 p.m. that of 21 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, 13 were successfully intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system.
The Israeli military said it has begun conducting airstrikes against PIJ sites in the Gaza Strip in response to multiple barrages of rockets they claimed responsibility for having fired at southern Israel throughout the evening.
Hamas’s Al-Qassam brigades reported that the IAF targeted multiple targets belonging to terrorist groups in the northern Gaza Strip on Sunday night. The IDF confirmed that it had struck a PIJ terror cell preparing to launch rockets from the northern part of the Strip. Palestinians reported that there were at least three injured in the strike.
The Homefront Command later released directives for the communities surrounding the Gaza Strip, limiting public gatherings to 300 people in enclosed spaces only, and agricultural work was banned. All studies in southern Israel were also canceled due to the situation.
Following the rocket barrages, the mayors of Ashkelon and Gan Yavne ordered all public shelters to be opened. Schools in Ashkelon were canceled. The mayor of Sderot urged citizens to remain close to shelters.
Two wounded Israelis were brought to the Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon after the rocket sirens on Sunday evening, including one woman, aged 64, in light condition, who fell and hit her head while running to a shelter, and another woman, aged 20, who was suffering from anxiety.
A second round of rockets was fired into Israel about two hours later, with rocket sirens sounding in Ashkelon and surrounding areas. Soon after, rocket sirens sounded in the town of Kissufim. While no injuries were reported in the second round of rockets fired at Ashkelon, an empty car was struck by shrapnel.
A third round saw rockets fired towards Sderot and surrounding communities. One private home in Sderot sustained minor damage from shrapnel from an Iron Dome Tamir interceptor missile.
The second barrage came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) Nadav Argaman and other senior security officials held a situational assessment at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.
The UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov, and Egyptian intelligence are speaking with both sides to try calm the situation and prevent a further escalation, according to Palestinian reports.
Former defense minister and Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman criticized the Netanyahu’s policy, calling it “disgraceful,” and that it undermines Israeli deterrence.
“Just this week Israel enabled Hamas to receive payment of tens of million dollars of protection money. Hamas received the money, waited for the Qatari envoy to leave the [Gaza] Strip and immediately began firing,” he posted on Twitter.
Earlier on Sunday afternoon the IDF was reported to have increased the number of Iron Dome missile defense batteries over fears the Palestinian terrorist groups in the Hamas-run enclave would fire rockets in retaliation for the death of the terrorist.
A video from the scene uploaded to social media on Sunday showed a crowd of Palestinian youth throwing stones towards an Israeli bulldozer sent to retrieve the body of the dead terrorist. He was identified as Muhammed Ali al-Na’im, 27, a commander of PIJ’s military wing, al-Quds Brigade, in the Khan Yunis area.
The graphic footage showed the bulldozer driving at high speed toward a group of Palestinian youth to prevent them from grabbing the body. Several people were seen carrying one individual, but the bulldozer was seen lifting the body of the deceased suspect from the ground before it returned to Israel along with an IDF Merkava tank which had been guarding it.
Defense Minister Bennett called the uproar over retrieval of the terrorist’s body by the IDF bulldozer “hypocritical criticism of the left,” and supported the IDF’s collection of the corpse.
“I am sick and tired of the hypocritical criticism of the Left against the ‘inhumanity’ of using a bulldozer to retrieve the body of a terrorist who tried to murder Israelis. Gentlemen, you are not human. Hamas holds the bodies of Hadar and Oron,” he said, referring to the bodies of two fallen IDF soldiers in the hands of Hamas since Operation Protective Edge in 2014.
“I back the IDF that killed the terrorist and retrieved the body. This is how we should act in the face of terrorists.”
The Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza was quoted by the Bethlehem-based Ma’an News Agency as saying that another two men were injured by IDF gunfire while trying to retrieve the body and the wounded individual.
According to the IDF’s Spokesperson’s Unit, two Palestinians were identified approaching the fence and placing an improvised explosive device on it near the southern city of Khan Yunis. They were fired upon by troops from the IDF’s Kfir Brigade “who were deployed to the location following the detection” of the suspects.
The Israeli military said the cell affiliated with the PIJ terrorist group which had placed the explosive device near the border fence on Sunday morning was responsible for two other similar incidents in recent months near the fence.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad called the incident “a brutal crime” and vowed to “not let the occupation deal with us as it does with some Arab states. We are placing our hands on the trigger and we will avenge the blood of the martyrs by firing on Tel Aviv.”
Last week, Bennett said that Israel would begin to “hoard” the bodies of Palestinian terrorists, to use as “bargaining chips” to pressure Hamas to release two Israeli citizens and the bodies of the two fallen IDF soldiers held by the terrorist group in the Gaza Strip.
This is the second time in less than a week that IDF troops have opened fire on Palestinians near Khan Yunis. Last week a PIJ sniper fired towards troops stationed near the Gaza border. Israeli security forces – both IDF and officers from the police’s elite counter-terrorism unit – responded with artillery fire.
While the IDF said that it had “identified a hit,” there were no Palestinian reports of casualties.
The incidents come as Israel is trying to broker a long-term ceasefire arrangement with the Hamas-run coastal enclave.
On Saturday evening, Liberman revealed that Mossad director Yossi Cohen and the Head of the IDF’s Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Herzi Halevi made a secret visit to Qatar earlier this month.
During the visit, which lasted less than a day, the two met with the Qatari envoy to the Gaza Strip Mohammed al-Emadi and Qatari national security adviser Mohammed Bin Ahmed al-Misnad, and reportedly “begged” the Qataris to keep sending money to the blockaded Gaza Strip.
“Both the Egyptians and the Qataris are angry with Hamas, and they were going to cut all ties with them. All of a sudden Netanyahu shows up as a Hamas advocate, pressuring Egypt and the Qataris to continue,” Lieberman told Channel 12 news.
Qatar, which is Gaza’s main financial backer, sends millions of dollars to Hamas every month. On Friday, Doha said it would be increasing aid to impoverished Gaza and will provide some 120,000 families with $100 by the end of February. Another $24 million will be used to build a new hospital in Rafah in the south of Gaza.
Over a dozen rockets and mortars as well as countless explosive balloons and condoms have been fired towards southern Israel, as tension spiked following the release of US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan at the end of January.
In mid-February, following the launching of several projectiles into southern Israel, Jerusalem announced it would reduce the Gaza fishing zone from 15 to 10 nautical miles, and reduced the number of work permits from 2,000 to 500 for Gaza businessmen to enter Israel. The restrictions were lifted several days later.
Last week, Bennett warned that “the lawless conduct of Hamas leadership is bringing us closer to fatal action against them. We will not announce when or where, but no one will be immune.
“The State of Israel does not want a war with Hamas in Gaza, but we have a commitment to the security of southern residents,” he said. “Hamas faces the choice: to choose life and economic prosperity or to choose terror and pay an unbearable price.”Tzvi Joffre contributed to this report.