Beersheba targeted by rocket attack for first time since 2014 war

Projectile strikes open field outside the southern city, shattering a ceasefire that lasted approximately two hours

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

A police officer inspects a crater caused by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip that struck an open field north of the city of Beersheba on August 9, 2018. (Israel Police)
A police officer inspects a crater caused by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip that struck an open field north of the city of Beersheba on August 9, 2018. (Israel Police)

A rocket launched from the Gaza Strip struck a field north of Beersheba on Thursday afternoon, setting off sirens in the southern city for the first time since the 2014 Gaza war and puncturing a purported ceasefire that lasted approximately two hours.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.

Beersheba Mayor Ruvik Danilovich said the Grad rocket landed in an open area north of the city, but he was still waiting to hear additional details from security officials. The military said it could only confirm that a rocket had been launched at the city.

Police said sappers were called to the scene to remove the rocket debris.

Police display the remains of a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip that struck an open field north of the city of Beersheba on August 9, 2018. (Israel Police)

Videos circulated on social media apparently showing the location of the impact site.

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.

Sirens also sounded in the communities of Omer and Lakiya, just outside the city.

This was the first attack directed against Beersheba since the 2014 war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge.

A July 12 picture of the house in the Nahal Beka neighborhood in Beersheba that was directly hit by a rocket on the fourth day of Operation Protective Edge, on the night of July 11, 2014. (Flash90)

The 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.

The site where a mortar shell from the Gaza Strip hit an apartment building and cars in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, August 9, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

A picture taken on August 8, 2018 in Gaza City shows a smoke plume rising following an Israeli air strike. (AFP/ MAHMUD HAMS)

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.

A member of the Hamas military police walks through rubble at a site that was hit by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City on August 9, 2018 (AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD HAMS)

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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (2nd left) meet with top seucirty officials at IDF military’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, early Thursday, August 9, 2018 (Defense Ministry)

The security cabinet was scheduled to hold a special session on Thursday evening to discuss the recent escalation in violence and decide on a course of action.

In the hours before that meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to hold 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.

The site where a mortar shell from the Gaza Strip hit an apartment building and cars in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, on August 9, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

Adam Rasgon, Raphael Ahren and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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