IDF gets green light to strike Hamas after rocket barrage

All communities within 30-km range from Gaza connected to rocket alert system; over 60 rockets, mortars fired Wednesday; IAF strike kills 1.

Kassam damage sderot 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Kassam damage sderot 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The IDF received the green light Wednesday for a series of operations against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, after more than 60 mortar shells and Katyusha and Kassam rockets pounded the Negev. The barrage hit communities throughout the South, reaching as far north as Ashkelon and as far south as Kerem Shalom. At least two Grad-model Katyusha rockets were fired into Ashkelon on Wednesday, and a Kassam with extended range hit Netivot. No one was wounded, even though terrorists hit close to educational facilities and homes; however, nearly 60 people, almost half of them children or teenagers, were treated for emotional trauma and anxiety. "It was a Hanukka miracle," Magen David Adom spokesman Yerucham Mandola said. A factory, a home and other structures were damaged. Due to the recent escalation and out of concern that during an IDF operation in Gaza, Hamas would further escalate its rocket attacks, the IDF Home Front Command decided Wednesday to connect all towns within 30 km. of the Gaza Strip to the Kassam-warning system, including Ashdod, Ofakim and Kiryat Gat. In addition, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i decided to distribute beeper systems to farmers in the Gaza periphery. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Wednesday night that he had ordered the IDF to prepare itself to deliver a "response" to the rocket attacks. He said Hamas was responsible and would pay a price. "Anyone who hurts Israeli civilians or soldiers will pay the price in a big way," Barak said in an interview on a Channel 2 talk show. "We will bring the solution, and we will not let this situation continue." Defense officials said the IDF now had approval for a number of operations that would likely include heavy air strikes against Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets, as well as pinpoint ground operations against terrorist infrastructure. Military sources said a major operation - such as conquering the Gaza Strip - was not currently on the agenda. The officials would not reveal the timing of the planned operations so as not to tip off Hamas, but said that it depended on a number of factors, including the stormy weather in the South. Hamas said it would continue to fire rockets in "self-defense." The group also said it had placed all its forces on high alert in preparation for an IDF invasion of the Gaza Strip. In Ashkelon, one rocket slammed into a home seconds after a father rushed his children from the living room into a bomb shelter. A massive hole gaped in a wall of the living room, which was sprayed with shrapnel. Baby toys lay covered in rubble and dust, and a crib was pocked with splinters and filled with pieces of concrete. In the evening, IAF aircraft bombed a rocket cell in southern Gaza, near the Daniyeh air strip, killing at least one Palestinian and wounding two others. The IDF said it had targeted a rocket squad that was behind Kassam rocket fire on Sderot earlier in the day. "We will not let this continue," a defense official said on Wednesday night. "Our response will come in the right place and at the right time." The ambiguity about the timing of an IDF operation was in line with what Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the security cabinet on Sunday - that Israel would not give Hamas a "promo" of when and how it would respond. However, hints that Israel's response was well on the way could be found in a statement a government official released after the four-hour security cabinet meeting. "Hamas bears sole responsibility for the deterioration in the South. They deliberately undermined the understandings reached through Egypt, and they acted to destroy the calm," the official said, in what sounded like an explanation to the world of why Israel needed to act. "Until now, Israel has acted with great restraint, despite the fact that the civilian population was continuously targeted," the official said. "But this cannot go on." The official warned that "Israel will answer quiet with quiet, but we will answer attacks with measures to protect our people." During the security cabinet meeting, the ministers were briefed by intelligence and military officials on the situation in the South, as well as on plans that had been drawn up on how to respond. A media blackout was declared on the deliberations. The meeting had originally been meant for a discussion of global jihad. However, the escalating violence forced Gaza onto the agenda. Although most of the meeting was dedicated to the Gaza Strip, the discussion on global jihad was still held, and 35 al-Qaida- and Taliban-affiliated organizations were declared terrorist organizations for the purposes of fighting money-laundering that provides them with cash. According to a statement issued after the meeting, the blacklisted groups are active mainly in Pakistan, Afghanistan and North Africa, and operate against Western targets, not necessarily Israel. The decision obligates banks and financial institutions to check their accounts and transactions and to report any activity suspected of being related to these organizations. The move is in line with regulations taken in other Western countries, especially the US. Meanwhile, Police Commissioner Insp.-Gen. David Cohen ordered police reinforcements to be sent to the Southern District in light of the escalation in rocket fire. The decision came following a situation analysis at the police's Lachish subdistrict headquarters, held by Cohen, police Operations Branch head Cmdr. Bentzi Sao and Southern District Dep.-Cmdr. Danny Hen. IDF and Home Front Command officers also attended the meeting. The increased forces were meant to enable a rapid police response to rocket attacks. Officers have been tasked with helping to evacuate the victims, protect property and give residents a sense of security. Cohen also called on police to be on alert for "unusual" incidents that could develop in "sensitive spots around the country" - a reference to mixed Arab-Jewish cities. MDA, too, stepped up operations in the western Negev and the Lachish region, putting ambulance staffers there on the highest alert Wednesday morning. Director-general Eli Bin ordered that 200 ambulances be on duty in the embattled region. Such an alert was last called some six months ago, before the unofficial cease-fire went into effect on June 19. On an ordinary day, there are only a few dozen ambulances at the ready in the region. With the high alert, which will last until further notice, ambulances were given the most advanced equipment for coping with the situation. Bin consulted with security experts before making his decision. Judy Siegel and Yaakov Lappin contributed to this report.