IDF kills Hamas missile commander, destroys rocket sites

Gantz: Gaza operation aims to ‘strike Hamas hard,’ make it ‘regret’ rockets

Defense minister says fighting likely to last several days; Netanyahu says IDF ordered to expand attacks on terror groups in the Strip, after 2 women killed in rocket attacks

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Smoke billows following Israeli retaliatory airstrikes on the southern Gaza region of Khan Yunis after rocket fire toward Israel (Mahmoud KHATAB / AFP)
Smoke billows following Israeli retaliatory airstrikes on the southern Gaza region of Khan Yunis after rocket fire toward Israel (Mahmoud KHATAB / AFP)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Tuesday said Israel’s goal with its ongoing strikes in the Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire from the enclave is to severely weaken the Hamas terror group and restore calm to southern Israel.

Gantz said the operation, dubbed Guardian of the Walls, was likely to last at least several days as Israeli aircraft, ground forces and naval ships bombed assets and operatives of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

“The purpose of the operation is to strike Hamas hard, to weaken it and to make it regret its decision [to launch rockets at Israel],” Gantz said, speaking to reporters next to an Iron Dome missile defense battery in southern Israel.

“Every bomb has an address. We will continue this in both the coming hours and the coming days. It’s hard to estimate how long it will take,” he said.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to air defense soldiers operating an Iron Dome missile defense battery in southern Israel on May 11, 2021. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said the military was launching a major offensive against the Hamas terror group’s rocket launching capabilities in the northern Gaza Strip, with some 80 fighter jets, including the advanced F-35 aircraft, taking part in the operation.

Zilberman said the military also conducted an additional targeted killing of a terrorist commander, killing the head of the Hamas’s anti-tank guided missile unit in Gaza City, Iyad Fathi Faik Sharir, who has led a number of attacks against Israel in recent years.

“The ATGM unit in Gaza City was prepared to carry out anti-tank guided missile attacks at the time of the strike,” the military said, releasing footage of the raid.

The spokesman said the IDF also bombed an attack tunnel approaching the border with Israel, which had Hamas special forces members in it at the time, who were killed.

The defense minister said the catalyst for Hamas’s rocket attacks appeared to be the massive clashes in Jerusalem’s Old City and on the Temple Mount on Monday between Palestinians and Israeli security forces, as well as pending evictions of several Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood as a result of a contentious lawsuit currently being reviewed by the High Court of Justice.

“Our efforts to cool things down in Jerusalem led to where they led, and ultimately Hamas acted against the State of Israel against Jerusalem on Jerusalem Day,” Gantz said, referring to the Israeli holiday marking the reunification of Jerusalem after IDF troops captured eastern parts of the city in the 1967 Six Day War.

At 6 p.m. on Monday, after issuing an ultimatum to Israel to remove all its troops from the Temple Mount and Sheikh Jarrah, Hamas launched seven rockets at Jerusalem, all of which fell short of the capital. Several landed in open areas outside Jerusalem suburbs, sparking fires and damaging one home.

Terror groups in the Strip then fired a massive barrage of rockets and mortar shells at cities and towns throughout southern Israel, notably Ashkelon and Sderot. These rocket attacks have continued regularly throughout Monday night and all of Tuesday. Hundreds of rockets and mortar shells have been fired at Israel in that time, killing at least two women in Ashkelon — an Israeli woman and a foreign worker — and injuring dozens more.

The military later acknowledged that the Iron Dome missile defense system malfunctioned during the rocket barrage on Ashkelon in which the two women were killed, but that the issue had been resolved. Hamas said it had used a new type of rocket, the Sajil, which had a different type of flight path that was more difficult for the Iron Dome to intercept. The IDF refused to comment on the terror group’s claim.

An Israeli firefighter extinguishes a burning vehicle after a rocket launched from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip hit the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on May 11, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

In response to the rocket attacks from Gaza, the IDF launched Operation Guardian of the Walls on Monday night, some three hours after the attack on Jerusalem, striking Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets in the Strip, as well as members of the terror group. According to the military, a number of high-level commanders in the groups have been targeted, including the head of PIJ’s rocket unit in the northern Gaza Strip and the brother of its former top commander, who was killed in an Israeli strike in November 2019, sparking a large conflict.

According to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry, 28 Gazans have been killed in the fighting, including nine minors, and 125 wounded in the ongoing escalation with Israel. Fifteen Gazans sustained serious injuries, according to Hamas health ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra. Israel said more than half were Hamas fighters and that some of those killed, including at least three of the children, were struck by errant rockets fired by Palestinian terrorists, not Israeli strikes.

Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Israeli military had been ordered to “intensify the severity and pace of the attacks.”

Smoke billows from a building targeted in an Israeli strike on Gaza City amid rocket fire from the Strip on May 11, 2021 (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

“We are in the midst of a campaign,” he said. “Since yesterday afternoon the IDF has carried out hundreds of strikes against Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. We’ve hit commanders and many high-quality targets.”

The Israel Defense Forces’ Arabic-language spokesperson Maj. Avichai Adraee warned residents of the Gaza Strip that the military was preparing to conduct a large number of airstrikes in the enclave.

“The Israel Defense Forces is currently launching a large and exceptional round of airstrikes on the Gaza Strip,” Avichay Adraee wrote in a tweet.

“For your safety: Stay away from any site that contains Hamas weapons,” he added.

According to Zilberman, the military destroyed dozens of rocket launch tubes that the terror group has buried around the northern Gaza Strip. In order to avoid being killed by the IDF during rocket launches or having their weapons destroyed in advance, terror groups in the Strip typically bury their launch tubes and operate them remotely. Zilberman said “precise intelligence” led the IDF to the 50 to 70 rocket tubes that were bombed in the raids.

The spokesman said the strikes would “totally neutralize” the rocket launching capabilities of at least three Hamas brigades in northern Gaza.

Asked why the military was not striking all of Hamas’s rocket launchpads, Zilberman said the IDF was still conducting operations and will expand them going further.

“This is not something that will end in 24 hours. This is something that will last,” he says, echoing the similar comments made by Gantz earlier in the day.

According to Zilberman, 3,000 reservists have been called up to various units in the military, notably the Southern Command and Home Front Command, and reinforcements were sent to the Gaza Division from the Golani Infantry Brigade and 7th Armored Brigade. He said an additional Iron Dome missile defense battery has also been deployed in southern Israel.

The Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon said that it treated 74 casualties, including two seriously wounded and two in moderate condition. Forty-nine people received treatment for light injuries, with the remainder suffering from anxiety.

A medic carries a wounded child from an apartment building in Ashkelon hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip on May 11, 2021 (Flash90)

With a number of buildings in the city suffering direct hits over the course of the day and concerns over the number of residential buildings without bomb shelters, the Israel Defense Forces instructed residents to remain in reinforced areas. Although this restriction was since been lifted, residents were asked to remain within close proximity of a fortified location.

Ashkelon Mayor Tomer Glam said some 25 percent of residents don’t have access to a protected area when rockets are fired at the city.

“It is impossible when normal life becomes a state of emergency within minutes,” he told Army Radio. “There are houses from the 1960s where there is no basic protection — it is time for Treasury officials and decision-makers to understand what is happening here in the city.”

Tuesday afternoon saw the rocket attacks shift slightly northward, with projectiles fired at Ashdod including a rocket that directly hit a residential building. Buildings were also hit in Ashkelon, including a school that was empty in light of military orders to close all academic institutions.

Israeli security forces at an Ashdod home hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip on May 11, 2021 (Flash90)

On Monday night, a rocket directly struck a house in the Sha’ar Hanegev region, damaging it but not injuring its occupants.

In the early hours of Tuesday, a missile hit a residential building in Ashkelon, wounding six Israelis, four of them members of the same family: parents in their 40s, an 8-year-old and an 11-year-old. The father was seriously hurt with a head wound and the others sustained light injuries from shrapnel.

On Monday, an Israeli man was lightly injured when Palestinian terrorists fired an anti-tank guided missile at his car.

The mother of Hussein Hamad, 11, is comforted by mourners during his funeral in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip on May 11, 2021. Israel and Hamas exchanged heavy fire, with 22 Palestinians killed in Gaza, nine of them children, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry. The IDF said several of the Gaza fatalities were caused by Gaza rockets aimed at Israel that misfired or landed inside Gaza. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

The IDF spokesperson said Israel was taking steps to avoid Palestinian civilian casualties, but that they were liable to occur anyway as Hamas deliberately operates within a densely populated area, using the residents of the Strip as human shields.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi on Tuesday afternoon gave the military a green light to keep targeting Hamas and PIJ members operating in the Strip and bombing sites connected to the terror groups’ rocket production and storage efforts.

Soldiers from the IDF’s Golani Infantry Brigade and 7th Armored Brigade were sent to the Gaza border as reinforcements and additional troops were called in to aerial defense, intelligence and air force units, the military said. The police said that eight reserve companies of Border Police would be called up to help deal with disturbances across the country.

Zilberman said the military was deploying additional air defenses throughout the country, notably in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. Tel Aviv had yet to be targeted as of Tuesday afternoon, but the IDF suspected that rocket fire may be directed there as well.

In light of the ongoing rocket attacks, Gantz on Monday declared the area within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the Gaza Strip to be under military control, giving the IDF the power to issue directives to civilians there. The IDF ordered schools closed in communities near Gaza on Tuesday and limited gatherings to groups of 10 people outdoors and 50 people indoors. Businesses would be allowed to open only if they had easy access to bomb shelters.

The military also limited gatherings in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and the Shfela region around Beit Shemesh to 30 people outdoors and 50 people indoors. Schools and businesses there could also only be opened if they had easy access to a bomb shelter. A number of cities in central Israel announced they were preemptively canceling schools on Tuesday as a precautionary measure.

Meanwhile, the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said that the Strip’s sole power plant was running low on diesel fuel after Israel closed all of its crossings on Monday evening in response to the hundreds of rockets fired.

The coastal enclave normally receives most of its fuel through the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing with Israel, and according to the Gaza Electrical Company, one of the plant’s generators has already been turned off and the plant as a whole will likely shut down “soon” due to lack of fuel, threatening to severely restrict the number of hours of electricity Gazans receive.

Al-Qidra said that an electrical shortage would threaten the effectiveness of Gaza’s health care system. “This will have a serious effect on public health and the health of our society,” he said.

Hamas, which is officially dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel, took effective control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 from the Palestinian Authority in a violent coup. Since then, Israel has imposed a naval blockade on the enclave, as well as stiff control over what can enter the Strip, maintaining that it is necessary in order to prevent terror groups from smuggling weapons into the area.

The military initially believed that Hamas was not interested in a large-scale conflict with Israel at this time, but that assessment changed over the past two days and the IDF began preparing accordingly.

Fire billows from Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, on May 10, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Palestinian terror groups have tied the attacks to the unrest in Jerusalem connected to both prayer on the Temple Mount during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the pending eviction of a number of Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

Israel has fought three large operations against Hamas and other terror groups in the Gaza Strip since 2008, most recently in 2014 with a 51-day war known as Operation Protective Edge.

Aaron Boxerman and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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