The entire leadership of Hamas, the Islamist terror group that rules the Gaza Strip, has gone underground in anticipation of possible targeted killings by Israel, a report said Saturday night.
Following increasing Israeli hints of possible hits on Gazan leaders following weeks of hostilities on the southern front, all the senior members of the Hamas political bureau as well as the commanders of its military wing are operating from hiding places and being careful to keep their locations secret, the Ynet news site reported, without citing a source.
The targeted killing of a Palestinian leader in Gaza is a rare event, but both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz have hinted at a possible return to the policy, with Gantz warning on Thursday that the IDF was able to hit human targets as well as buildings and terror infrastructure.
Gantz on Friday additionally warned the terror groups in Gaza that the IDF will deliver a “very harsh blow” if the violence continues.
“The IDF is ready, it defends and will continue to defend the residents of the south and will attack anyone who attacks us and deliver a very harsh blow,” Gantz said after a meeting with senior IDF officers.
Gaza terror groups have warned Israel against reinstating its policy of targeted killings, saying it would be met with a large and coordinated response, including thousands of missiles fired at Tel Aviv, a Lebanese newspaper reported on Saturday.
Sources told the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar newspaper that the “Joint Operations Room” of Gaza factions notified Israel, via intermediaries, that “it would respond in a large and strong way” in the event that Israel carried out an assassination.
The report said it would be seen as a declaration of war “in which the resistance would burn Tel Aviv with thousands of missiles as well as things the occupation does not expect.”
Over the past few weeks, terrorists in the enclave have again begun launching balloon-borne incendiary and explosive devices into southern Israel, sparking dozens of fires that caused environmental and property damage in the region. Rockets have also been fired on multiple occasions at Israeli cities and towns, including over a dozen projectiles overnight Thursday-Friday. Those attacks have drawn daily retaliatory Israeli strikes against Hamas installations.
A ceasefire in place for years, which has already been renewed several times, is bolstered by millions of dollars in financial aid from Qatar to Gaza. But complaints from Hamas that Israel has failed to live up to its side of the bargain have been accompanied by sporadic flare-ups on the border.
The Qatari envoy to Gaza, Mohammed al-Emadi, is expected to visit the Strip this week for the first time since February to deliver the cash payment to Gaza residents.
The Kan public broadcaster cited Palestinian media saying al-Emadi was due to arrive on Tuesday or Wednesday at the latest.
The money has continued to arrive regularly despite al-Emadi not being present himself over the last six months.
However, Israel has threatened not to allow him in if the incendiary balloons and rocket attacks persist.
Hamas is under immense international pressure — from Qatar, Egypt and UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov — to halt its attacks, alongside pressure from the Gazan public which is getting only 3-4 hours of electricity per day after getting used to more than three times that amount, after Israel ended fuel imports in response to the violence.
But analysts say Hamas believes Israel is not interested in a round of violence at this time, leading it to toughen its demands.
Saturday saw a renewal of fires in the south caused by incendiary balloons launched from Gaza toward Israel with seven blazes reported, including one in a greenhouse in Moshav Netiv Ha’Asara.
Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip fired a rocket at Israel on Friday evening that was intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system, the army said. There were no reports of injuries or damage. The IDF said as morning broke on Saturday that it had attacked Hamas positions in response to the rocket fire.
On Friday night, police removed a balloon with an incendiary device from the roof of a house in the city of Beersheba. While arson balloons have ignited scores of fires in parts of Israel adjacent to Gaza in recent weeks, Beersheba is located over 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the Strip.
Friday’s sirens came as Israel and Hamas traded threats after 12 rockets were fired toward Israel overnight Thursday-Friday. Israeli warplanes carried out three rounds of reprisal strikes following the barrage.
A home in the southern Israeli town of Sderot sustained considerable damage in one of the attacks.
Pictures of the home showed a kitchen blown apart, windows smashed and large holes in walls and the roof. Reports indicated that the damage was likely caused by shrapnel from an interception.
The owner of the home said he believed he and his wife miraculously escaped after warning sirens failed to wake them.
The IDF boosted the number of Iron Dome batteries in the south of the country in response to the uptick in violence. It also ordered the cessation of agricultural work near the border fence with the enclave until further notice.
The apparent uptick in fighting comes amid truce efforts being brokered by Egypt.
AFP contributed to this report.