Terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip fired volleys of projectiles at southern Israel throughout Thursday morning, triggering a fresh round of airstrikes by the Israeli military on Hamas targets in the Palestinian enclave.
Over 180 rockets and mortar shells were launched at Israel on Wednesday night and Thursday morning by the Gaza-ruling Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Strip, injuring at least seven people in Israel and causing damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure throughout the area, 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.
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 military 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.
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, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge.
The security cabinet was scheduled to hold a special session on Thursday afternoon 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.
After a brief lull in the early hours of Thursday morning, the rocket and mortar attacks from the Gaza Strip picked up again at 8:30 a.m., triggering the Iron Dome missile defense system, which reportedly shot down a number of projectiles. Incoming rocket sirens could be heard in the Israeli communities bordering the Strip — known collectively as the Gaza envelope — and as far north as the coastal city of Asheklon.
There were no immediate reports of injuries from the latest attacks on Thursday morning.
One projectile struck a solar energy field in a community in the Sha’ar Hanegev region of southern Israel, causing damage to the equipment, a local government spokesperson said.
Most of the rockets hit open fields, causing no damage. The Iron Dome missile defense system, which targets only missiles projected to strike communities, destroyed at least 30 incoming projectiles, according to the army.
In response to the fresh barrage, the Israeli military launched renewed strikes against terrorist infrastructure in the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian media outlets reported that the air force was bombing sites throughout the coastal enclave.
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One woman was seriously injured in the predawn hours of Thursday morning when a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip hit her home in the Eshkol region of southern Israel, just outside the Palestinian enclave.
The woman was a 30-year-old foreign worker from Thailand. She suffered injuries to her abdomen and limbs. Another person was lightly injured, and several were treated after they suffered panic attacks.
According to the Israeli military, at least five other people were wounded by the rocket and mortar attacks, either from shrapnel or in injuries sustained while rushing to bomb shelters. Dozens of Israelis were treated for panic attacks caused by the explosions, including two pregnant women in the southern town of Sderot who went into premature labor.
The military said its retaliatory raids targeted training compounds as well as weapons manufacturing facilities and storage warehouses. The air force also targeted a number of rocket launchers, as well as the car that the army said was being used by terrorists to fire projectiles at southern Israel from northern Gaza. One Hamas operative, 30-year-old Ali al-Ghandour, was reportedly killed in the airstrike. Unconfirmed reports claimed he was the relative of a senior Hamas commander.
Hamas said a pregnant woman and her infant daughter were killed in another strike.
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.
At least six other Palestinians were injured as a result of the IDF strikes, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry.
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.
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 military also handed down a number of safety directives to residents of the Gaza envelope, closing roads and train lines in the area, canceling summer camps and requiring residents to remain close to bomb shelters.
A sleepless night
Sirens sounded regularly in southern Israeli communities throughout the night, and thousands of families slept in bomb shelters and protected spaces.
Overnight at least six rockets exploded in Sderot, including two that hit homes and one that hit a factory. Another hit a house in the Hof Asheklon regional council. In all cases the rockets caused damage but no casualties. In addition, a rocket hit a factory in the Sha’ar Hanegev region, breaking through the roof and damaging equipment inside, a spokesperson for the region said. The factory was empty of people at the time of the rocket attack.
Hamas claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attacks, saying it was avenging the deaths of two operatives killed in an Israeli strike the day before — a strike that came in response to what the IDF initially identified as a shooting attack on its forces, but which was apparently an internal Hamas exercise.
“In response to Israel aggression, the Palestinian resistance has launched a large number of rockets in recent hours at the enemy,” a statement by the group said. “There was a promise [to respond] and now it has been fulfilled.”
The United Nations condemned the Hamas rocket fire.
“I am deeply alarmed by the recent escalation of violence between Gaza and Israel, and particularly by today’s multiple rockets fired towards communities in southern Israel,” UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov said in a statement.
He called on all sides to step “back from the brink” and restore calm.
“If the current escalation…is not contained immediately, the situation can rapidly deteriorate with devastating consequences for all people.”
US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt also condemned Hamas in a tweet. “Another night of terror & families huddling in fear as Israel defends itself,” he said.
“This is the Hamas regime’s choice. Hamas is subjecting people to the terrifying conditions of war again.”
According to the military, among the Hamas positions bombed by the fighter jets was a factory where the terror groups constructs the concrete blocks it uses for attack tunnels and a fully operational tunnel opening near the Gaza coast belonging to Hamas’s naval commando unit.
The IDF said the terror group, with which it was fought three wars in the past decade, would bear the consequences of any further violence from the Gaza Strip.
“The IDF sees with severity the terrorist activities of Hamas. The IDF is prepared for a variety of scenarios and is determined to fulfill its mission of defending the citizens of Israel,” the army said in a statement.
The renewed rocket attacks came amid a period of heightened tensions along the Gaza border, following months of clashes and exchanges of fire.
On Tuesday, Hamas 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 after spotting members of the terror group evacuating posts likely to be targeted by Israel in reprisal raids.
Hours later, shots were fired from the northern Gaza Strip at a number of civilian construction vehicles along the border, damaging one of them, the army said. In response, an IDF tank shelled a nearby Hamas observation post.
Wednesday’s rocket fire represented a major uptick in tensions along the border, amid intensive talks between Israel and Hamas for a long-term ceasefire.
Such an agreement is meant to end not only rocket launches and shootings from Gaza but also the regular incendiary kite and balloon attacks from the Palestinian enclave that have burned large swaths of land in southern Israel and caused millions of shekels of damage.
Raphael Ahren, Adam Rasgon, and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.