Rocket strikes empty playground in Sderot; no injuries

Over a dozen Gaza rockets fired at south as violence erupts after morning lull

Iron Dome shoots down at least 12 of 14 projectiles; attack follows threats from both Palestinian and Israeli officials of renewed fighting

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

Smoke trails are left in the sky after Palestinian terrorists fire a rocket at southern Israel from the Gaza Strip on February 24, 2020. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)
Smoke trails are left in the sky after Palestinian terrorists fire a rocket at southern Israel from the Gaza Strip on February 24, 2020. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip fired at least 14 rockets at southern Israel on Monday afternoon, with 12 of them being intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, shattering a tense calm following an intense battle between Israel and terror groups in Gaza and Syria the night before, the military said.

One rocket struck an empty playground in the town of Sderot, causing damage, but no injuries, police said.

Another rocket appeared to strike an open field outside the community of Nir Am in the Sha’ar Hanegev region, according to local government.

Shrapnel from one of the Iron Dome interceptions also shattered a car windshield in the community of Nir Am, a Sha’ar Hanegev spokesperson said.

In response, to the rocket attacks, the Israel Defense Forces launched a series of airstrikes on Islamic Jihad targets in the Gaza Strip.

Shortly after the military completed its airstrikes in Gaza, terrorists in the Strip fired at least one rocket toward the city of Ashkelon, just north of the Palestinian enclave.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.

The IDF’s high interception rate on Monday represented an impressive performance by the Iron Dome missile defense system and its operators, as well as a high degree of accuracy by terror groups in the Strip. In general, the Iron Dome is only activated when an incoming projectile is heading toward a populated area, rather than an open field where it is unlikely to cause injury or damage.

A police sapper removes pieces of a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip that struck a playground in the town of Sderot on February 24, 2020. (Israel Police)

There were no physical injuries caused by the rockets. Medics treated one woman who suffered an anxiety attack during the barrage.

The attacks triggered sirens in the cities of Ashkelon and Sderot, in Sha’ar Hanegev, and in the community of Netiv Ha’asara, sending thousands of residents rushing to bomb shelters.

Damage caused to a car in the community of Nir Am in southern Israel by shrapnel from the interception of a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip on February 24, 2020. (Nir Am security)

Videos shared on social media appeared to show multiple launches of the Iron Dome missile defense system over Sderot.

The attack came after Palestinian and Israeli officials exchanged threats of renewed violence throughout Monday morning. On Sunday evening, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terror groups in the Strip launched some 30 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel, approximately half of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. The rest landed in open fields. Some shrapnel caused light property damage, but no injuries were reported.

In response, the IDF launched a series of airstrikes on Islamic Jihad sites in both Syria and the Gaza Strip, killing two members of the terror group outside Damascus along with four other pro-Iranian fighters, according to a Britain-based Syrian war monitor. A number of Islamic Jihad operatives were also injured by an IDF airstrike in Gaza as they prepared to launch rockets at Israel, the military said.

Abu Hamza, a spokesperson for the Al-Quds Brigade, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad military wing, said Monday that Israel’s strikes on Damascus “will not pass fleetingly,” adding: “The fight is not over.”

Islamic Jihad took responsibility for Sunday’s rocket attacks. The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine terror group also said it had fired rockets at Israel on Sunday.

Both Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened Monday that Israel could begin a major operation to stem rocket fire and other attacks on Israeli communities near the Gaza border, despite elections a week away.

“We are preparing a plan to fundamentally change the situation in the Gaza Strip,” Bennett told a conference in Jerusalem. “I really understand the situation of the people of the south. They deserve peace and security.”

Netanyahu told Radio Jerusalem that he “will not compromise Israel’s security for political reasons.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a meeting at the Health Ministry in Tel Aviv on February 23, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“War is a last resort, but there may be no escape from it. We’ve prepared a radically different campaign,” Netanyahu said.

“If Israel is in the position of entering a large-scale military operation, we will have to deal a bigger blow than [operations] Cast Lead, Pillar of Defense and Protective Edge. It could very well be that we may have to carry out — I don’t really want to say it, but — ‘the mother of all operations.'”

It was unclear if the calm was the result of international efforts to mediate a ceasefire, or if the Hamas terror group, the de facto ruler in the Strip, had muzzled Islamic Jihad’s ability to respond, amid ongoing talks with Israel for a long-term arrangement that would see a blockade on the Strip eased significantly.

Though Hamas has stayed out of the fighting, a report on Israel’s Army Radio indicated that Israel was prepared to strike the terror group as well as Islamic Jihad if fighting renewed.

Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli airstrike in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on February 24, 2020. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP)

In announcing the airstrikes on Islamic Jihad targets, the IDF notably did not mention Hamas, with which Israel hopes to negotiate a ceasefire agreement. In the past, Israel held Hamas responsible for all violence emanating from the Strip, regardless of which terror group was behind it. However, the IDF has latterly begun to distinguish between Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which Israel believes is responsible for the majority of the violence along the Gaza border in recent months.

Though the fighting died down in the early hours of Monday morning, the IDF Home Front Command issued a series of precautionary directives for southern Israel in case of renewed fighting throughout the day, closing schools, banning large outdoor gatherings, blocking roads and halting train service.

The rocket fire came after an irregular clash along the Gaza border earlier Sunday in which Israeli troops shot dead a member Palestinian Islamic Jihad as he planted an improvised explosive device along the border. The Israeli military then retrieved his body, using a bulldozer.

The retrieval of the corpse was apparently part of Bennett’s announced plan to “hoard” the corpses of Palestinian terrorists in order to use them as “bargaining chips” in negotiations for the release of two Israeli men, and the remains of two fallen Israeli soldiers, who are being held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The smoke trail of a rocket, fired by Palestinian terrorists, flying over the Gaza Strip, on February 23, 2020. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

The border clashes come amid reports of ongoing efforts by Israel to broker a ceasefire agreement with Gaza terror groups, following weeks of intermittent rocket fire and the regular launching of balloon-borne explosive devices into Israel.

The IDF said the strikes in Syria and Gaza were in response to both Sunday morning’s attempted IED attack and the rocket fire throughout the evening.

In November, Israel fought a punishing two-day battle with the Islamic Jihad, sparked by the IDF killing one of the terror group’s leaders — Baha Abu al-Ata — whom Israel believed was responsible for most of the group’s aggressive actions.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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