Gaza terrorists continued to increase the range of their rocket attacks on Saturday, targeting Beersheba for the first time since November 2012.
Three rockets were fired at the city on Saturday evening, setting off warning sirens in the largest town in southern Israel. One was intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system, while two fell in open fields. There were no reports of casualties.
The attack on Beersheba, which has a population of 200,000, marked a significant escalation in the Gaza rocket attacks, and could lead to a severe Israeli response.
Prime Minister Benjamin 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.
Shortly after the attack on Beersheba Saturday, five more rockets were fired towards the Hof Ashkelon and Eshkol regions. Three of them were intercepted by Iron Dome while two fell in open areas. The town of Ofakim was also targeted in an earlier salvo.
In all, over 20 rockets and mortar shells had been fired into Israel by nightfall on Saturday, causing no significant 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 reports proliferated of an impending ceasefire agreement.
However, with the attack on Beersheba, Israeli patience could now be wearing thin.
The persistent rocket fire came despite Egyptian efforts to broker a renewed truce between Israel and Hamas in and around Gaza following a flare-up of cross-border violence since the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers on June 12.
Former military intelligence chief, Amos Yadlin, now director of the Institute for National Security Studies, had said early Saturday that Hamas was wary of launching rockets deeper into Israel, at Beersheba or the center of the country, which, he argued, indicated that Israel has not lost its deterrent power.
“There is no doubt that we are facing another round [of violence] with Hamas. We will take action when Hamas crosses the line and the next round will be significant, and will involve ground and air campaign,” he said.
A Hamas official, who did not give his name to Palestinian news agency Sawa, said overnight Friday-Saturday that “those who expect Hamas to stop the rocket fire [on Israel], should to turn [Palestinian Authority Prime Minister] Rami Hamdallah.”
The official was alluding to the fact that the salaries of 40,000 Hamas clerks in Gaza were still unpaid, which was reportedly a key Hamas demand since agreeing to a unity government deal in late April with the Palestinian Authority.
The salaries issue was a focus of tension between Hamas and Fatah after the reconciliation agreement was signed, and banks in the Gaza Strip were closed for six days after the Hamas worker’s salaries were not transferred.
The Palestinian Authority has reportedly refused to pay the salaries, pointing out that the agreement stipulated that a special committee would be set up to examine the issue and decide whether the employment of all 40,000 would continue.
Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV reported that the office of Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh would resume operations if the salaries were not paid by next week.
Haniyeh resigned as prime minister in early June, just ahead of the swearing in of the Palestinian unity government.
Osama Hamdan, a Hamas official abroad, said Saturday that the Islamist group would not agree to a truce without the removal of the blockade on Gaza.
On Friday night the Israeli Air Force carried out a series of air strikes on militant targets in the Gaza Strip. The army said it hit three Hamas targets, but did not give further details. Palestinian officials did not report any casualties in the strikes.
While the Israeli government appeared interested in de-escalation, not all of its members seemed to agree that restoring calm was the best course of action.
“The idea that ‘quiet will be answered with quiet’ is a serious mistake,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said on a visit to Sderot on Friday, adding that he believed Israel must now strike Hamas hard.
“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.
“We cannot to accept a situation in which Hamas controls the pace of events and dictates when it flares up the region, and all we do is respond,” he added.
Sirens had wailed in Israel’s southern city of Sderot, the Eshkol Region, Sdot Negev and the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council, warning of incoming rocket fire from Gaza, from early in the morning Friday. In the course of Friday, more than 20 rockets were fired into Israel from Gaza.
On Friday morning, Egyptian and Palestinian sources confirmed to The Times of Israel that a ceasefire was set to be declared between Israel and Hamas, but the exact timing has yet to be set. The truce was mediated by Egyptian intelligence officials, as has been the case in similar negotiations in the past.
According to the sources, the understanding that the Egyptians reached with Israel and Hamas is that “quiet will be met with quiet.”
“Neither side is interested in an escalation,” the sources told The Times of Israel.
The sources also reported that the Egyptians passed messages from Israel to the deputy head of Hamas’s political desk, Moussa Abu Marzouk, based in Cairo. Israeli sources said they were waiting for an answer from Hamas. “The ball is in Hamas’s court,” an official told the Ynet news site.
Commentators in Gaza attributed the escalation in rocket fire over the past 48 hours to the feeling in Hamas that Israel was looking to avoid a fight, and that a cease-fire was impending.
According to the commentators, Hamas is trying to achieve a public relations victory in the eyes of the Gaza public, to be seen as unafraid of an escalation. But, they said, Hamas is itself uninterested in a deterioration into a larger conflict.
Israel on Thursday reportedly issued a 48-hour ultimatum to Hamas in Gaza to halt the incessant fire or face a massive Israeli strike.
Avi Issacharoff contributed to this report.