The Israeli Air Force on Thursday evening flattened a five-story building in the northern Gaza Strip that served as a headquarters for the Hamas terrorist group’s internal security service, the army said.
The Israel Defense Forces said the strike on the building in the northern Gaza Strip, which also served as a cultural center in the coastal enclave, was in response to “rocket fire by the Hamas terror group against the city of Beersheba earlier in the day.”
Hamas denied that it was behind the attack on Beersheba, saying it was the work of a more radical salafist group, according to Hadashot news.
The military threatened that its attack on the building was “an expression of the IDF’s intelligence and operational capabilities, which will expand and intensify as necessary.”
Eighteen Palestinians were wounded in the Israeli strike, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. The degree of their injuries was not immediately known.
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The attack on the building was one of the IDF’s first strikes on a site deep inside a city in Gaza since the 2014 war. Most of the strikes previously conducted by Israel targeted facilities outside major population centers. In addition, the Rimal neighborhood in which the building was located was one of the nicer areas of Gaza City.
This decision was seen as an attempt by the military to show Hamas that it was prepared to step up its attacks against the terror group if rocket and mortar fire continued to strike southern Israel from the Gaza Strip.
The IDF released aerial footage of the strike.
Minutes after the Israeli strike on the building began, incoming rocket sirens blared in the Eshkol region of southern Israel, sending thousands of residents into bomb shelters, where they had already spent much of the day in light of frequent attacks from the Gaza Strip throughout the previous two days.
A second wave of sirens were triggered in the Eshkol region shortly after the IDF confirmed that it had conducted the strike at 8:00 p.m.
Just over an hour later, a third barrage set off alarms in the Eshkol, Sha’ar Hanegev and Hof Ashkelon regions.
One projectile fired at the Sha’ar Hanegev region sparked a small fire when it exploded in an open field, a local government spokesperson said.
There were no other reports of injuries or damage caused by the attacks.
The building targeted by the Israeli strike in Gaza City was known as the Said al-Mishal Cultural Center. The building contained the second-largest theater in the Strip and was home to an office for Egyptians living in coastal enclave.
However, the IDF said the building was also used by Hamas’s internal security service, which “is the operational arm of the political leadership of the Hamas terror group.”
The military said the building contained offices used by the security service.
“Some of the members of the internal security unit are also operatives of Hamas’s military wing,” the IDF said.
Videos and photographs from the scene showed that the entire structure was flattened after Israeli aircraft fired multiple missiles at it.
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In the attack, the Israeli military appeared to have used its “roof-knocking” technique, in which planes first drop a low-powered bomb on a building as a warning to those nearby of an impending strike.
The airstrikes came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened the high-level security cabinet on Thursday evening to discuss the volatile security situation in the south and decide on a course of action.
It came hours after the rocket hit an open field north of Beersheba, setting off sirens in the southern city for the first time since the 2014 Gaza war and rupturing a purported ceasefire that lasted approximately two hours.
The Grad rocket caused no injuries or damage. Police said sappers were called to the scene to collect and remove the debris.
No Palestinian terrorist group immediately took responsibility for the attack.
Palestinian media reported Israeli artillery strikes against terrorist groups’ positions in the Gaza Strip around the same time as the attack, though it was not immediately clear if these raids were related to the rocket launch.
The attack against Beersheba marked a significant increase in the level of violence from the Gaza Strip. Terrorist groups in Gaza have launched over 180 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel since Wednesday evening; however, these have been mainly directed at communities directly adjacent to the coastal enclave. Beersheba is located some 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Gaza.
That rocket launch came some three hours after terror groups in the Strip declared the current round of violence to be over and two hours after the latest mortar shell had been fired.
“The current round in Gaza has ended. The resistance responded to the enemy’s crimes in Gaza. The continuation of calm in Gaza depends on [Israel’s] behavior,” said an official from a joint command center for a number of Palestinian terrorist groups, notably the Gaza-ruling Hamas, earlier Thursday.
A source in the Hamas terrorist group confirmed the cessation to AFP.
On Tuesday, Hamas had vowed to avenge the deaths of two of its members killed by IDF tank fire after the army mistakenly thought a Hamas military exercise had been a cross-border attack. On Wednesday afternoon, the military warned that it was anticipating a revenge attack by Hamas.
Shortly after the cessation announcement was made at noon, terrorist groups in the Strip launched two fresh attacks, which triggered sirens in the area adjacent to Gaza but appeared to have hit open fields, causing neither injury nor damage.
Throughout Wednesday night and Thursday morning, Gaza terror groups fired over 180 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel, injuring at least seven people and causing damage to homes, businesses, and infrastructure throughout the region, according to the Israel Defense Forces.
In response, the Israeli Air Force struck over 150 Hamas “terror sites” in the Strip, the army said.
Palestinian officials said a pregnant woman and her infant daughter were killed in the Israeli strikes, along with one Hamas fighter, who was reportedly in a car used by a rocket-launching Hamas cell that was targeted by an IDF aircraft.
The Hamas-run health ministry named the woman as Aynas Abu Khamash, 23, and her daughter, 18-months-old, as Bayan. According to Ashraf al-Qidra, a spokesman for the ministry, they were killed in an Israeli strike on the central Gaza Strip early Thursday morning. Mohammed Abu Khamash, Aynas’s husband, was seriously injured in the strike, he said.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the IDF, said he could not comment on the specific case of the Abu Khamash family, but stressed that the army targeted “only military sites” in its raids.
Arab 48, an Arab-Israeli news site, which spoke with members of the Abu Khamash family, said the family’s home is located in rural Gaza and four kilometers from the border fence between the Strip and Israel. There are a number of military sites which belong to armed groups in Gaza near the border. The report did not say if the Abu Khamash home was located adjacent to a military site.
On Thursday morning, Israeli fighter jets bombed two Hamas fighting tunnels along the central Gaza coast, as well as a tunnel opening in the northern Strip and a military facility east of the southern city of Rafah, the army said.
“The wide-reaching attacks that the IDF has conducted caused damage and destruction to some 150 military and strategic targets belonging to the Hamas terror organization, which represent a significant blow to Hamas,” the army said in a statement.
In addition, an IDF aircraft also targeted a terrorist cell launching mortar shells at southern Israel on Thursday morning. The military later released video footage of the airstrike.
The army warned the terror group that it will “bear the consequences for its terrorist activities against the citizens of Israel.”
So far, the military has focused on targeting Hamas infrastructure while largely avoiding casualties, apparently in an effort to prevent further escalation of violence.
However, senior Israeli officials indicated that the country was prepared for a wider confrontation with Hamas.
“Whatever is needed to protect our citizens and our soldiers will be done, no matter what the price will be in Gaza,” Housing Minister Yoav Gallant, who serves on the security cabinet, said Thursday.
“Let’s hope for peace, and let’s be ready for war,” he added.
Earlier in the morning, a senior IDF officer warned that Israel was “rapidly nearing a confrontation” with Hamas in Gaza.
“Hamas is making serious mistakes, and we may have to make it clear after four years that this path doesn’t yield any results for it and isn’t worth it,” he said, referring to the time elapsed since the 2014 Gaza war.
In the hours before the security cabinet meeting, Netanyahu held security consultations with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, the head of the Shin Bet security service Nadav Argaman, and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv.
The military was deploying additional Iron Dome batteries in the region in preparation for Hamas possibly increasing the range of its targets. During past wars rockets have reached as far as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Beersheba.
A large number of additional forces were also deployed to the Gaza area. However, no reservist units have been called up as of Thursday morning, the army spokesperson said.
The renewed rocket attacks came amid a period of heightened tensions along the Gaza border, following months of clashes and exchanges of fire.
Earlier this week, there had been reports of intensive talks between Israel and Hamas for a long-term ceasefire.
Raphael Ahren and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.