Egypt was working late Saturday night to mediate a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel following two days of rocket attacks out of the Gaza Strip and surgical IAF retaliations. Meanwhile, both the rocket attacks and IAF strikes continued well into Saturday night as the IDF targeted a storage facility for weapons in the Gaza Strip.

Israel Radio quoted Hamas spokesman Taher Al-Nunu as saying that Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was participating in the negotiations, brokered by Egypt. He reportedly added that Hamas was awaiting Israel’s reaction and that negotiations regarding the rocket-launching on the Palestinian side could take place only when Israeli attacks in Gaza come to a halt. Earlier on Saturday, Egypt condemned the IAF strikes in Gaza and called for an end to the violence.

The southern Israeli cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon and Beersheba fell under a barrage of rockets Saturday evening as the second day of violence between Israel and the Gaza Strip — the worst in a year — raged on. Two Grad rockets were intercepted over Ashkelon by the Iron Dome missile defense system, but shrapnel caused damage to a house in the city. In Ashdod, a mare was killed as a house in the city suffered a direct hit. Alarms and explosions sounded in Israel’s southern cities throughout Saturday evening, resulting in a decision to keep schools closed on Sunday within a radius of 7-40 kilometers of the Gaza Strip. As of Saturday night, schools were to remain closed in Beersheba, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Netivot, Kiryat Gat, Ofakim, Beer Tuvia, Yavne and Gedera.

Israeli National Police chief Yohanan Danino raised Israel’s alert level to C, the second-highest, on Saturday evening. The alert level in the South was raised to the highest level, D.

Earlier on Saturday, 15 terrorists were killed in the Gaza Strip in IAF strikes. Throughout the day, terrorists responded by firing 135 rockets into Israeli territory, 74 of which hit Israel — an average of three rockets per hour during a timespan of 30 hours, according to the IDF Spokesperson. One Israeli civilian was seriously wounded Friday night as a result.

In Israel’s southern border areas, residents were told to stay home and refrain from holding large outdoor events on Saturday. Meanwhile, a hotline (1-800-363-363) was opened to support those suffering from trauma. Throughout Saturday, the low whooshing noise of terrorists firing rockets from border areas toward Israel was palpably heard inside Gaza City. Israeli drones hovered in the skies above. Tens of thousands of Palestinian mourners marched through the streets in funeral processions. They carried slain terrorists in coffins, their bodies too torn up to be wrapped in cloth, as Muslim tradition dictates. Masked terrorists sprayed machine gun fire above the mourners’ heads in angry grief. “Revenge, revenge!” chanted the crowds.

According to the IDF Spokesman, the IAF targeted two terrorist activity sites in the Gaza Strip on Saturday afternoon, hitting both directly.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pr8p_MbOY84

The Iron Dome missile defense system made approximately 28 out of 31 successful interceptions of rockets aimed toward population centers in the South, said a statement from the IDF Spokesman’s Office. 

A Home Front Command official instructed Israelis to enter shelters or “safety areas” if they hear an alarm or explosion.

In response to the barrage from Gaza, the Israeli Air Force fired at two men on a motorcycle near Khan Younis in southern Gaza on Saturday morning, according to Palestinian sources. One of the men died instantly, and the second died in a hospital soon afterward from his injuries. The IDF Spokesman said the two were members of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) and that they were en route to a rocket launching site.

In addition, military officials reported Saturday that Israeli air strikes took out six terrorist cells in Gaza late Friday and early Saturday morning as they were preparing to launch rockets. These latest IAF strikes bring the Palestinian death toll to 15, ten of whom were members of the terrorist organization Islamic Jihad. The other four killed were members of the PRC. The air strikes came after an evening of rocket and mortar fire from the Strip which injured eight people, one of them seriously and another moderately.  Several Israelis were also treated for shock and anxiety.

Terrorist groups in Gaza claim the rockets were fired in retaliation to Israel killing Zuhair al-Qaissi, the commander of the armed wing of PRC, and two other PRC members, in an attack on Qaissi’s car in Gaza City, Friday afternoon. Israeli military officials said al-Qaissi oversaw last August’s terrorist attack north of Eilat in which eight Israelis were killed, and that he was about to orchestrate another similar attack — hence the decision to strike at him in his car. Al-Qaissi’s PRC was the group responsible for the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006.

An Israeli F-15 (photo credit: Ofer Zidon/Flash90)

An Israeli F-15 (photo credit: Ofer Zidon/Flash90)

Also on Friday, three members of Islamic Jihad were reported killed in a separate Israeli air strike on Gaza. Islamic Jihad and PRC declared an end to the relative calm of recent months, and launched rockets at residential areas in the South. Israeli military sources said they were braced for a possible further escalation in the coming days.

Army Radio reported that the Iron Dome missile defense system shot down multiple rockets fired towards Beersheba, Ashdod and Ashkelon. One rocket caused damage to a building on the outskirts of Beersheba. Military sources called the Iron Dome deployment a success, since those rockets that were not intercepted caused no major damage and most landed in open areas, outside of the population centers in the southern part of the country.

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz held a special meeting Saturday morning with top officials in order to assess the situation in the South, Ynet News reported. Gantz promised to respond forcefully to any further attacks, which he and other military officials expected will be forthcoming. Israelis were cautioned on Saturday to stay away from gatherings of over 500 people. The warning came as thousands of Israelis planned to head out into the streets and celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim.

Beersheba mayor Ruvik Danilovich told Ynet News, “This escalation cannot be ignored.” He added that he gives full backing to targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders. “Even if they cause a tense security situation, [targeted strikes by the IDF] will have a deterring effect in the long run,” Danilovich said.

Israelis officials said Hamas was using other groups to carry out attacks in its place and warned that Gaza’s rulers “will bear the consequences of these actions” if an escalation took place. “The IDF does not seek an escalation in the region. However, the IDF is prepared to defend the residents of Israel and will respond with strength and determination against any attempt to execute terrorist attacks,” read an IDF statement issued after the midnight attack. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum blamed Israel for sparking a new escalation. “The blood of our martyrs will not go in vain,” he said.