Hamas operatives fired an anti-tank guided missile at an Israeli military jeep on the Gaza border on Wednesday morning, killing one soldier and injuring two others along with a civilian who helped pull them from the vehicle, according to Israeli authorities, as fierce fighting between the Israel Defense Forces and Palestinian terrorist group entered its third day with no signs of abating.
Immediately after the missile attack, terrorists in the Strip fired waves of mortar shells at the area, around the community of Netiv Ha’asara just north of the Strip, in an apparent effort to keep medical teams and security forces away. The injured soldiers and civilian were eventually taken to nearby hospitals in Ashkelon and Beersheba. Medics said the three soldiers were hurt by shrapnel and the force of the blast, while a man in his 40s, Gil Timor, the deputy mayor of the Hof Ashkelon region, sustained a moderate injury from a piece of shrapnel as he helped pull the other men from the vehicle.
The slain soldier was identified as a member of the Nahal Infantry Brigade’s 931st Battalion, Staff Sgt. Omer Tabib, 21, from Elyakim.
The Israel Defense Forces then launched a series of coordinated strikes in Gaza City and Khan Younis, killing four top commanders in Hamas’s military leadership who were associated with its weapons development and production efforts.
The Shin Bet identified the Hamas officers as: Bassem Issa, commander of Hamas’s Gaza City brigade; Jamaa Tahla, the head of its cyber command and responsible for improving the accuracy of the group’s rockets; Jamal Zabeda, the head of research and special projects in its weapons productions department; and Hazzem Hatib, chief engineer in its weapons production department.
According to the security service, Sami Radwan, who leads Hamas’s technical intelligence department, and Walid Smali, who was in charge of industrial equipment for the group’s weapons production department, were also killed in an earlier attack on Hamas sites.
“In addition, 10 other operatives from Hamas’s weapons production and research and development department were killed,” the Shin Bet said.
Hamas confirmed the deaths of Issa and several of his “brothers-in-arms” in the fight against Israel.
“With pride, fortitude and defiance, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades take pride in… the martyrdom of the commander Bassem Issa,” the Hamas armed wing said.
The military said the deaths of those 16 Hamas members — four top leaders, two lower-ranking commanders and 10 others — represented a major achievement for Israel in this round of fighting, though Israeli defense officials anticipated that the killings would likely prompt Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad to renew their attacks on central Israel.
“We eliminated senior Hamas commanders and this is just the beginning,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “We will inflict blows on them that they couldn’t even dream of.”
The prime minister, who was visiting the wounded at Holon’s Wolfson Medical Center, said that Israel “will respond, and we are responding, with increasing force.”
Shortly after the IDF-Shin Bet strikes, Hamas fired dozens of rockets at the cities of Ashdod and Beersheba, as well as the town of Dimona, home to Israel’s main nuclear reactor.
Before the deadly anti-tank guided missile attack, there had been a brief lull in fighting between the two sides on Wednesday morning. Earlier in the day, the IDF launched massive raids on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, as terrorists in the Strip fired large barrages of rockets at central and southern Israel, killing an Arab Israeli man, Halil Awad, and his teenage daughter Nadine.
Over 1,050 rockets and mortar shells have been fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel since the outbreak of fighting on Monday evening, according to the IDF. Roughly 200 of the total number of rockets failed to clear the border and landed inside the enclave, the military said. IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said the Iron Dome air defense system had an interception rate of between 85 and 90 percent for rockets heading toward populated areas.
At least six people in Israel were killed — three on Wednesday and three on Tuesday — and dozens more injured in the rocket attacks from Gaza, some seriously, including a 5-year-old girl in critical condition.
A 67-year-old woman suffered a heart attack that was brought on by rocket sirens in central Israel, and in Tel Aviv, an 80-year-old man suffered an apparent heart attack while running for a shelter and was in serious condition, medics said.
In response to the rocket fire, the IDF launched strikes on upwards of 500 targets in the Gaza Strip, aimed at Hamas personnel, weaponry and infrastructure throughout the enclave, with plans to attack more in the coming hours and days, Zilberman said.
Those included further targeted killings of top Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad commanders and the destruction of a number of high-rise buildings that the IDF said were used by the terror groups as command centers, intelligence bases and weapons research and development facilities, as well as for housing senior members of the terror groups.
According to the Strip’s Hamas-run Health Ministry, 53 Palestinians have died since Monday night, including 14 minors and three women, and 320 have been wounded. The IDF said more than half of those killed were members of terror groups involved in the fighting and that some, including several of the children, were killed by errant rockets fired from Gaza that fell short of the border and landed inside the Strip, not by Israeli strikes.
The military has also said it was taking steps to avoid Palestinian civilian casualties. In the cases of attacks on the high-rise buildings, that has included calling those inside and telling them to leave prior to the impending attack and using the “knock on the roof” technique of dropping a non-explosive missile on a building as a warning to those inside to exit before demolishing the structure. In at least one case on Tuesday, the military actively negotiated with the manager of a building over the amount of time needed to evacuate the structure before the attack.
This is wild.
It's the manager of one of the buildings that the IDF destroyed yesterday on the phone with the Israeli military discussing the amount of time needed to remove everyone from the building and keep them out before the airstrike.https://t.co/KiGmJf9xj4
— Judah Ari Gross (@JudahAriGross) May 12, 2021
However, Zilberman said Palestinian civilians were likely to be injured or killed anyway as Hamas deliberately operates within a densely populated area, using the residents of the Strip as human shields.
Israeli officials on Wednesday said they had no intention of entering an immediate ceasefire and plan to have the IDF continue striking targets associated with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terror groups in the Strip in order to both restore deterrence against them to prevent future attacks and to significantly weaken their capabilities.
“There is currently no end date for the operation. Only when we achieve complete quiet can we talk about calm,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said during a tour of rocket-hit Ashkelon. “We will not listen to moral preaching from any organization or institution regarding our right and duty to protect the citizens of Israel.”
Asked how much longer the IDF believed Hamas had the ability to fire rockets at central Israel, the spokesman said that the terror group was likely depleting its arsenals, but could still launch large barrages in the coming days.
“Hamas’s stamina is running out, but this is an organization with stamina. It won’t run out in 24 hours,” Zilberman told reporters.
Tuesday night and Wednesday morning saw the largest-ever barrages of rocket fire directed toward central Israel from the Gaza Strip, with the Hamas terror group saying it fired upwards of 100 missiles toward the city of Tel Aviv and its suburbs, known collectively as Gush Dan, as well as the nearby Shfela region farther east and up to the Sharon area north of Tel Aviv.
On Tuesday night, a large tank in Ashkelon belonging to the Eilat-Ashkelon oil pipeline was hit by a rocket and has been on fire since, with firefighters working to douse the blaze. Israeli authorities have said there is no risk of dangerous chemicals being released into the air, but health officials have instructed residents of the area to remain inside and close their windows.
A technical issue with two Iron Dome launchers during the massive rocket barrage toward Ashkelon on Tuesday afternoon prevented some rockets from being intercepted and may have been responsible for some casualties. The malfunction was repaired and the batteries returned to being fully operational shortly after, the military said.
Though the military often boasts of the Iron Dome’s ability to intercept incoming projectiles and small aircraft, defense officials stress that the system does not offer absolute protection.
We offer our deepest condolences to the family & loved ones of Ms. Soumya Santosh, an #Indian Citizen killed in the #HamasTerrorist Rocket Strike. The state of @Israel is coordinating with @indemtel for the transfer of her body to India. May her memory be a blessing.???? pic.twitter.com/mYRjNxgUCz
— Israel in India (@IsraelinIndia) May 12, 2021
Zilberman denied that the military was “surprised” by the attack, saying the IDF was aware that Hamas and the Islamic Jihad had such capabilities, though he indicated that the scope of the attack was somewhat larger than anticipated.
The military also said it was sending further reinforcements from the Paratroopers Brigade to the Gaza border, joining the infantry, armored and artillery units already dispatched to the border in recent days.
The IDF on Tuesday called up 3,000 reservists, sending them primarily to the Southern Command and the Home Front Command.
In light of the ongoing attacks from Gaza, the Home Front Command ordered schools shuttered south of Herzliya on Wednesday and placed strict limitations on the size of gatherings in southern and central Israel.
Hamas, which is officially dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel, took effective control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 from the Palestinian Authority in a violent coup. Since then, Israel has imposed a naval blockade on the enclave, as well as stiff control over what can enter the Strip, maintaining that it is necessary in order to prevent terror groups from smuggling weapons into the area.
Palestinian terror groups have tied the attacks to the unrest in Jerusalem connected to both prayer on the Temple Mount during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the pending eviction of a number of Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.
Israel has fought three large operations against Hamas and other terror groups in the Gaza Strip since 2008, most recently in 2014 with a 51-day war known as Operation Protective Edge.
Aaron Boxerman and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.