After thousands of residents spent the night in bomb shelters, the Israel Defense Forces announced Thursday morning that it was removing restrictions put in place on Gaza border communities a day earlier amid a surge in violence from the Strip.
The decision came after a tense but quiet night in Israel’s south, after rocket fire from the Gaza Strip overnight Tuesday-Wednesday and Israeli retaliatory strikes raised the possibility of a large-scale military conflict in the Palestinian enclave.
Following the IDF announcement, the Sha’ar Henegev Regional Council sent a message to residents saying , “After a short but tense wait, we are happy to let you know that following an operational assessment by the army, it has been decided on a full return to normalcy,”
The council also said that “school lessons and all other educational frameworks will be running as usual.”
The southern city of Beersheba, where a rocket destroyed a home the night before, also announced that schools would be reopening.
Hours earlier, top political leaders and army brass finished a meeting of the high-level security cabinet after five and a half hours of talks on how to deal with the Gaza tensions.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened the security cabinet in Jerusalem on Wednesday evening. It finished at 2:30 a.m. Thursday.
As the security cabinet convened, Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi, the head of the Israel Defense Forces Southern Command, warned the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group that Israel will “know how to respond more forcefully for situations in the future.”
In response to the launching of two rockets from Gaza, one of which hit a home in the southern city of Beersheba, the Israeli Air Force conducted strikes against some 20 targets in the Gaza Strip, including a border-crossing tunnel.
In a video, Halevi said the army conducted “significant strikes against Hamas weapons manufacturing facilities, headquarters, posts and underground infrastructure. Everything that was attacked, was destroyed. It will be difficult for them to rebuild, to bring in the money (to pay for reconstruction).”
The general also accused the terror group of deceiving the Strip’s population.
“Hamas pretends to rule Gaza, tells Gaza residents that it’s trying to improve their lives. But in reality, the riots on the fence, the improvised explosive device, the explosive balloons, the incendiary balloons and, as we’ve seen tonight, rockets make the lives of Gaza Strip worse,” he said.
Halevi’s warning to Hamas came hours after Netanyahu vowed Israel would “act forcefully” in response to violence from Gaza. The comment came as the prime minister met with top security officials at the headquarters of the IDF’s Gaza Division for emergency consultations over the flareup, which sent already-high border tensions skyrocketing.
In the Strip, Hamas members reportedly evacuated posts out of fears of fresh airstrikes overnight and the terror group’s leadership had gone into hiding.
Egypt and the UN have reportedly scrambled to try to negotiate a calm between the sides since the rocket attack on Beersheba, which came days after Israeli leaders had already threatened a wider offensive over near-daily border riots and launches of incendiary balloons and kites.
Reports Wednesday said that Abbas Kamel, head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Services, had canceled a trip to Gaza, the West Bank and Israel set for Thursday amid the tensions surrounding Gaza.
Hamas and the second largest terror group in the Strip, the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, officially denied carrying out the rocket attack, saying it was “irresponsible” and undermined an Egyptian-led negotiation effort.
Israeli officials rejected the claim, saying only Hamas and Islamic Jihad had the capability of shooting rockets that could reach Beersheba.
There were no injuries in Wednesday’s attack, despite the rocket scoring a direct hit on a home, after mother Miri Tamano managed to drag her three sons into a reinforced bomb shelter seconds before the strike.
It was only the second rocket fired at Beersheba since the 2014 Gaza war. The previous rocket, which struck a field north of Beersheba on August 9, came as Palestinians fired dozens of projectiles at Israeli communities along the Gaza border.
Rocket attacks on Beersheba — home to more than 200,000 people — are rare and considered a major escalation.
Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan said an Iron Dome anti-missile battery would be deployed in the Beersheba area in the wake of the attack, a possible signal Israel expects hostilities with Gaza to continue despite the tentative calm that had taken hold by Wednesday afternoon.
Since March 30, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have participated in a series of protests and riots dubbed the “Great March of Return,” which have mostly involved the burning of tires and rock-throwing along the security fence, but have also seen shooting attacks and bombings as well as the sending of incendiary balloons and kites into Israel.
There have also been several flareups that took Israel and Hamas to the brink of war, with Palestinians firing rockets into Israel and the IDF responding with airstrikes.
Some 155 Palestinians have been killed and thousands more have been injured in the clashes with IDF troops, according to AP figures; Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of the dead were its members. An Israeli soldier was shot dead by a sniper on the border.