Hamas operatives were behind a large volley of rockets which slammed into Israel Monday morning, the first time in years the Islamist group has directly challenged the Jewish state, according to Israeli defense officials.
At least 16 rockets were fired at Israel Monday morning, most of them hitting open areas in the Eshkol region, the army said.
The security sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, assessed that Hamas had probably launched the barrage in revenge for an Israeli airstrike several hours earlier which killed one person and injured three more.
A member of Hamas’s militant wing was killed in the attack, Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said.
While Israel has maintained it holds Hamas responsible for all rocket attacks, officials have said that smaller groups, such as Islamic Jihad, are usually behind the rocket attacks, while Hamas squads generally attempt to thwart the rocket fire.
Hamas hasn’t fired rockets into Israel since Operation Pillar of Defense ended in November 2012, and has yet to take responsibility for this latest barrage.
The group fired hundred of rockets at Israel over eight days during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, as Israel carried out punishing strikes on the Palestinian enclave.
Officials said Monday’s rocket attacks, which appeared to deliberately target Israeli communities close to the border with the Gaza Strip, may have been intended to warn Israel against targeting Hamas operatives.
The army said in a statement that the Sunday night air raid was targeting terrorists “in the southern Gaza Strip, during their final preparations to launch rockets at civilian communities of southern Israel.”
“Hamas is responsible for the outrageous attacks originating from Gaza, and will be pursued as such,” IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said.
The air force attack on Khan Younis Sunday night came minutes after Palestinians in the coastal enclave fired a volley of rockets at southwestern Israel. The Iron Dome defense system shot down two of the projectiles — Grad rockets — over Netivot. There were no reports of injury or damage in the rocket attack.
Early Sunday morning, air force planes struck 12 sites in Gaza in response to rockets fired over the weekend. Two rockets hit the town of Sderot, close to the border with Gaza, late Saturday, causing a massive fire that destroyed a paint factory.
The latest series of attacks comes amid an escalation in hostilities along Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, as IDF troops scour the West Bank for three missing Israeli teenagers.
Israel has accused Hamas, which rules the Strip, of abducting the teens on June 12 and named two Hamas men as the suspected perpetrators.