Hamas on Saturday evening threatened to reach “all” of Israel’s cities with its rockets, several hours after targeting the city of Beersheba and as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu considered a tougher response to the attacks.
A digital image uploaded to the terror group’s Arabic language website Saturday night showed a Grad rocket launcher engulfed in flames with a Hebrew caption reading “All cities are close to Gaza.”
Meanwhile Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett heavily criticized Israel’s policy of restraint in the face of continued rocket barrages from the Gaza Strip.
“The strategy of ‘quiet for quiet’ is hurting Israeli deterrence and is enabling Hamas to gain power,” Bennett said in a statement Saturday night, several hours after three rockets were launched at the city of Beersheba for the first time since November 2012.
“Restraint in the face of attacks on women and children is not strength. Restraint in the face of the execution of three children is weakness,” the minister said, referencing the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank on June 12.
“The residents of the south are not second grade citizens, and we must respond to the rocket-fire at Beersheba just as we would respond to an attack on Tel Aviv, and not wait for an attack on Tel Aviv,” he said.
Hamas has hundreds of rockets capable of reaching Tel Aviv and Beersheba, former IDF Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin said Saturday, adding that the fact that the Islamist group was not utilizing that capacity underlined Israel’s ongoing deterrent capability.
IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz on Saturday told troops that the Israeli military would retaliate with force if rocket fire from the Gaza Strip continued. He said Hamas was responsible for the rocket fire targeting Israeli civilians, and that IDF forces were prepared for any eventuality in order to restore calm to southern Israel.
Bennett’s comments Saturday mirrored those made Friday by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who said during a visit to Sderot that “the idea that ‘quiet will be answered with quiet’ is a serious mistake.”
“It cannot be that after the kidnapping and murder of three teenagers and two consecutive weeks of rockets fall, the approach of Israel will be ‘quiet is answered with quiet,’” he said. “There can not be an agreement with Hamas. Ignoring the problem or being afraid to deal with it will lead us to a situation in which thousands of missiles are fired at us, not hundreds.
Over 20 rockets were fired into Israel on Saturday, with three targeting Beersheba. Several of the rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system, while others fell in open areas and did not cause damage, though a soldier was lightly wounded by mortar fire.
Israeli aircraft targeted three Hamas terror targets in the southern Gaza Strip early Saturday evening, as well as a militant the army said was preparing to fire a rocket.
The previous IDF strikes had taken place on Friday evening, also restricted to three Hamas targets with no casualties. The seemingly limited Israeli response to the continuing rocket salvos appeared to indicate that Jerusalem was still waiting to see whether Hamas would curb the rocket-fire as part of a possible ceasefire agreement.
However, with the attack on Beersheba, Israeli patience could now be wearing thin.
The attack on the city, which has a population of 200,000, marked a significant escalation in the Gaza rocket attacks, and could lead to a severe Israeli response.
Netanyahu held urgent consultations Saturday evening with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, and the heads of the security services. He said Israel was hitting Hamas targets in response to the rocket fire, and would use additional force if necessary.
After ordering increased Israeli forces to the Gaza border on Thursday, Netanyahu had warned: “One possibility is that the fire will stop and the quiet continues. The other is that the fire continues and then the increased forces that are in the south will act forcefully. The safety of our citizens is first and foremost.”
The last time Beersheba was targeted was during Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, which the IDF launched in order to curb persistent rocket fire from Gaza. Many Israeli cities including Ashkelon, Ashdod and even Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were targeted with rockets during that conflict. Over the course of eight days, some 1,500 airstrikes were carried out against terrorist installations and other targets. Six Israelis and 167 Palestinians were killed during the operation.