After flareup, IDF launches drill reportedly simulating capture of Gaza City

Military says exercise, along with a number of others that kicked off Sunday, are unrelated to the weekend’s major exchange of fire with Hamas

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

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers prepare for massive protests by Palestinians in Gaza on March 30, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)
Illustrative: Israeli soldiers prepare for massive protests by Palestinians in Gaza on March 30, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces launched a series of exercises throughout the country on Sunday, including one in southern Israel that will reportedly simulate the conquering of Gaza City, following a daylong flareup with the Hamas terror group over the weekend in which some 200 rockets and mortar shells were fired at Israel.

“Beginning in the morning, a number of military exercises will begin throughout the country, which are expected to finish up toward the end of the week,” the military said.

The IDF said Israelis can expect to see “increased movement by security forces, vehicles and aircraft” while the drills are taking place.

The Walla news site reported that one such exercise, led by the 162nd Armored Division, would focus on the capture of Gaza City in the Gaza Strip.

Smoke plumes rising following an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, July 14, 2018. (AFP / MAHMUD HAMS)

The Israeli military would not fully confirm the report, but said that the 162nd Division would be taking part in an exercise “that would simulate a southern layout, which will of course include ‘conquering’ drills.”

The IDF stressed that this exercise and the others taking place this week were not connected to the weekend flareup and had been planned well in advance “as part of the annual training program.”

Over the course of approximately 24 hours Saturday, southern Israel and the Gaza Strip saw one of the largest exchanges of fire since the 2014 Gaza war.

People at the scene where a courtyard of a house was hit by a Gaza rocket in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, on July 14, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

On Friday evening, an IDF soldier was moderately wounded when a Palestinian threw a grenade at him during a riot along the Gaza security fence. In response, shortly after midnight on Friday, the Israeli Air Force conducted airstrikes against Hamas positions in the coastal enclave.

A picture taken on July 13, 2018 shows tear gas canisters fired by Israeli forces landing amidst protesters during a demonstration along the border with Israel east of Gaza City. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

Hamas, which rules Gaza, along with the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups in the Strip, launched a barrage of mortar shells and rockets at southern Israel.

The attacks from Gaza and Israeli retaliatory strikes continued from 1:30 a.m. on Saturday until shortly after 2 a.m. on Sunday, according to the IDF.

A ceasefire of sorts was struck between Hamas and Israel on Saturday night, though Israeli officials refused to formally acknowledge it.

“The regional and international mediation has led to an end of the current escalation between the resistance and the occupation forces,” Hamas said.

A senior Israeli defense official would not directly comment on the reported ceasefire, but said: “Facts on the ground will determine our continued response.”

As of Sunday morning, the ceasefire appeared to be holding, despite two mortar and rocket attacks that looked like they could put it in jeopardy.

Remains of a rocket fired by terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip that struck southern Israel near the Gaza broder on July 14, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Authorities called for residents of southern Israel to “return to normal” and canceled all of the restrictions that the IDF’s Home Front Command had placed on communities in the Gaza periphery the night before, which called for residents to stay within sprinting distance of bomb shelters in case of rocket attack and limited the size of public gatherings.

Farmers, who had been required to coordinate their movements with the local military brigade, were also cleared to work in their fields freely.

“It is a full return to normal,” an army spokesperson said.

This decision was seen as an indication that the military believed the cessation of hostilities will continue to hold.

Residents of southern Israel spent most of Saturday in or near bomb shelters as mortar shells and rockets rained down on their communities throughout the day.

A building in the southern Israeli city of Sderot hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip (Israel Police)

Beginning at 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, some 200 rockets and mortar shells were fired at southern Israel from Gaza, according to the Israel Defense Forces. The majority of them, well over 100, landed in open fields. Over 30 of them were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. A number landed within the perimeters of communities in southern Israel.

Four Israelis were wounded when rockets hit a home and a synagogue in the border town of Sderot. They were taken to the hospital in moderate condition.

A number of other projectiles that landed inside communities in the Eshkol region of southern Israel caused light damage to buildings and infrastructure. In some communities, the mortar shells knocked down power lines, causing temporary outages, a spokesperson for the regional council said.

Palestinian youths look at a building that was damaged by an Israeli air strike on a building in the Shati refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip. July 14, 2018. ( AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

In response, the IDF launched its largest bombing campaign against Hamas targets in the Strip since the 2014 Gaza war, hitting dozens of targets, the military said.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said that two teenagers, aged 15 and 16, were killed in one of the IDF strikes on Saturday, on a building that the military said was used by Hamas for urban combat training and was situated over a tunnel that led into a “massive” underground network in Gaza. The army said warning messages were put out to Palestinian residents of the area before the attack.

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