After day of fighting, Israel, Gazans signal retreat from battle positions

Senior official says Jerusalem not interested in escalation of violence, but will respond to rocket fire; IDF chief tours Israeli communities bombarded throughout day

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative: The IDF launches a missile from the Iron Dome air defense system to intercept an incoming rocket from Gaza from a position in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on May 29, 2018. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)
Illustrative: The IDF launches a missile from the Iron Dome air defense system to intercept an incoming rocket from Gaza from a position in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on May 29, 2018. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)

A senior official on Tuesday night said Israel was not interested in a war in Gaza, but was prepared to respond “forcefully” to any rocket fire from the Strip, amid the largest exchange between Israel and Gaza-based terrorist groups since the 2014 war.

The Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist groups, jointly responsible for the hours of salvos of rockets and mortar rounds at Israel, released similar messages through Palestinian media, saying they were not interested in escalating the situation but that “you must be stupid to think that we won’t retaliate.”

The terror groups blamed the violence on Israel, which it accused of “trying to change the equation.”

Egypt was reportedly working behind the scenes with Israel, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad in an effort to calm the situation, according to Hebrew-language media.

The site where a mortar shell from Gaza hit a kindergarten in southern Israel, near the border with Gaza on May 29, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Throughout the day, terrorist groups launched dozens of mortar shells and rockets at southern Israel, beginning at 7 a.m. and lasting into the night. The projectiles caused several injuries and some damage, though a large number were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

In response, Israeli aircraft bombarded dozens of positions belonging to the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist groups, including a “unique” Hamas attack tunnel, which passed from the Strip through Egypt and into Israel, the army said.

On Tuesday afternoon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held an emergency discussion with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, the head of the Shin Bet Nadav Argaman, and other senior defense officials to discuss the situation in Gaza.

Following the meeting, the senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters, “We are not set on escalating the situation, but the Israel Defense Forces will respond forcefully to all fire from the Strip and will exact a price.”

IDF Spokesperson Ronen Manelis threatened Tuesday night that the army was prepared to step up its airstrikes in Gaza if the rocket and mortar fire by terrorist groups continued.

“If the terror from Gaza continues, we will intensify our retaliations. We will not allow continued rocket fire,” Manelis said at a press conference outside the army’s Tel Aviv headquarters.

The spokesman also appeared to threaten that Israel might begin directly targeting Hamas leaders.

“The heads of Hamas are hiding — and they know why,” he said.

However, an 8 p.m. salvo seemingly timed to coincide with nightly news reports had gone unanswered by Israeli forces as of 9 p.m., signaling the sides may be looking to retreat.

Prior to the meeting Liberman warned on Twitter: “Any place from which terror groups fire at Israel is a legitimate target for air force strikes.” He vowed to “operate in every way to ensure security and quiet for Israeli citizens.”

Netanyahu had vowed earlier to respond “with great force” to the attacks from Gaza.

During the day, Eisenkot and other senior officers met with the heads of Eshkol, Sdot Negev, Sha’ar Hanegev, and Hof Ashkelon regions, which saw repeated rocket and mortar attacks, in order to discuss the security situation and assess their preparedness for violence.

“During the meeting, the commanders updated the local government officials about the army’s assessments of the situation and they spoke about the preparedness of the communities and the civilian home front,” the army said in a statement.

“The chief of staff expressed his great appreciation for their leadership and the civil resilience being shown by the leaders and the citizens of the Gaza region,” the army said.

The attacks from the Gaza Strip began at 7 a.m., with a salvo of approximately 25 mortar shells, launched by the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The remains of a mortar shell that struck the yard of a kindergarten in the Eshkol region, near the Gaza border, on May 29, 2018. (Shay Machluf)

Mortar and rocket fire continued throughout the rest of the day, punctuated by brief intervals of relative calm.

After initially trying to allow residents of southern Israel to go about their usual routine, on Tuesday afternoon, the military ordered them to stay within 15-seconds’ reach of a bomb shelter until further notice.

Four Israelis — three soldiers and a civilian — were wounded by shrapnel in the attacks. One soldier was moderately wounded, while the rest suffered light injuries.

One mortar shell struck a tree in the yard of a kindergarten, shortly before children were due to arrive, in the Eshkol region of southern Israel.

The Israeli Air Force struck more than 35 targets in the Gaza Strip, belonging to Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

The army said it holds the Hamas terror group, which rules Gaza, responsible for every rocket and mortar attack coming from the Strip, regardless of who physically fires it.

“We know that Hamas has the ability to control the violence from Gaza,” an army spokesperson told reporters on Tuesday afternoon. However, later in the day Manelis said the mortar fire was proof Hamas had lost control of the Palestinian enclave.

Tuesday’s attacks followed months of tensions along the Gaza border, including weekly riots along the security fence beginning on March 30.

The border violence stepped up considerably in the past week, with multiple exchanges between Palestinian terrorist groups and the IDF along the security fence.

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