Palestinian terror groups evacuated their positions in the Gaza Strip on Monday morning ahead of expected Israeli counter-strikes following a rocket attack on a town in central Israel earlier in the day that destroyed several homes and injured seven people, including two infants.
In light of the rocket strike, which hit an apartment complex in the central Israeli town of Mishmeret, Israel closed its two Gaza crossings — Kerem Shalom, which is used for goods, and the pedestrian Erez Crossing.
Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians, Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rukun, also announced Monday that Israel would be restricting the permitted fishing zone around the coastal Gaza Strip until further notice.
The early morning attack on Mishmeret, located over 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the southern tip of the Gaza Strip from which the rocket was fired, represented a significant increase in the level of violence from the coastal enclave, following weeks of heightened tensions and border clashes, as well as skirmishes in Israeli jails between Palestinian security prisoners and prison guards.
This attack on Mishmeret was the farthest reaching rocket attack from the enclave since the 2014 Gaza war.
There are fears that violence will ramp up this week, with Hamas hoping to draw hundreds of thousands of rioters to the fence over the weekend to mark a year of so-called March of Return protests, which began March 30, 2018.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently in the United States for the annual AIPAC conference, cut his trip short and planned to return to Israel, following a meeting with US President Donald Trump later in the day.
“There was a criminal attack on the State of Israel, and we will respond forcefully,” Netanyahu said in a statement, following a discussion with the IDF chief of staff, national security adviser, head of the Shin Bet security service and other senior defense officials.
“In a few hours, I will meet with President Trump and immediately afterwards I will return to Israel in order to oversee our activities,” the prime minister said.
Following the attack, candidates from across the political spectrum lambasted Netanyahu’s Gaza policies and demanded a forceful response to the rocket attack.
In light of the expected Israeli retaliation, Palestinian terror groups throughout the Gaza Strip abandoned their bases and headquarters, which will likely be targeted by Israeli attack aircraft and artillery.
The IDF said Hamas was responsible for the rocket attack, noting that the projectile was a variety manufactured by the group and that it had been fired from one of its launchpads.
Hamas did not immediately comment on the rocket attack publicly, but an official from the group told The Times of Israel that the terrorist organization was investigating who fired the projectile, indicating that it had not been done with approval of senior leadership.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that Hamas has no interest in a large-scale conflict with Israel at this time.
“An Egyptian security delegation was supposed to come today,” the official said. “Hamas does not have an interest in firing a rocket at Israel before its arrival.”
On Monday morning, Israeli military officials met with the heads of local governments in the communities around the Gaza Strip to prepare them for the likely outbreak of violence following planned retaliatory strikes against terrorist targets in the coastal enclave.
As of noon on Monday there were no special safety instructions given to residents of the Gaza periphery, an IDF spokesperson said, though this may change with the start of an Israeli counterattack.
Senior Israeli officials told reporters Monday that a forceful retaliation to the early morning rocket attack was forthcoming, but it appeared to be delayed by Egyptian attempts to broker a ceasefire and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ongoing visit to the United States.
Following the attack, the head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ziyad al-Nakhalah, warned Israel against conducting a counterattack, saying “we caution the Zionist enemy against carrying out attacks against the Gaza Strip. [Israel’s] leaders must know that we will respond forcefully to their aggression.”
The rocket was fired from the Gaza Strip shortly after 5 a.m., hitting a residential building, injuring seven people, including two infants, and leveling the structure, officials said.
The attack triggered air raid sirens throughout the Sharon and Emek Hefer regions north of Tel Aviv, sending tens of thousands of residents scrambling to bomb shelters just after dawn.
According to the military, the rocket was fired from the Gaza Strip, where earlier this month two rockets were also fired at Tel Aviv, in what was described at the time as an apparent “mistake” by the Hamas terror group.
The Iron Dome missile defense system did not appear to have been activated by the Monday rocket attack. The military said it was still investigating the matter.
Police said the projectile caused the building to catch fire, and shrapnel from the rocket attack also caused significant damage to the surrounding area, as fragments hit a gas tank outside the building.
Firefighters and search-and-rescue workers extinguished the blaze caused by the rocket, the fire department said.
Initial assessments of the attack indicated that a domestically produced rocket known as a J80 was likely used in the attack though this has yet to be confirmed.
A 59-year-old woman was moderately injured in the attack, with light burns, shrapnel wounds and trauma from the blast. A 30-year-old woman was also moderately wounded, with shrapnel hitting her leg. The other people in the building — a 30-year-old man, 12-year-old girl, 3-year-old boy and 6-month-old baby — sustained light wounds, MDA said.
The injured were all members of the Wolf family, who lived in two housing units connected by a hallway. They were taken to Kfar Saba’s Meir Medical Center for treatment.
Several others in the area were treated for anxiety attacks and light injuries from falling while running to bomb shelters.
Two dogs belonging to the family were also killed in the rocket strike.
Schools in the Sharon region opened as usual Monday despite the attack, though the Education Ministry said teachers would hold a special session with students to discuss the issue.
Recent weeks have seen escalating tensions in the Gaza Strip, as its de facto rulers the Hamas terror group feuds with both Israel and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority. Domestically, the terror group has also faced protests and increased criticism as humanitarian conditions in the Strip continue to deteriorate.
On March 14, two rockets from the Gaza Strip were fired at Tel Aviv, landing in open areas and causing no direct injury. In response, Israeli war planes hit over 100 Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip later that night. The following day, after a brief exchange of fire, both sides reportedly agreed to a ceasefire.
Israeli officials later said the Hamas rocket launch appeared to have been a “mistake” caused by low-level operatives accidentally pressing a launch button on projectiles that were preemptively aimed at Tel Aviv for use in future conflicts — though this explanation was not universally accepted in Jerusalem.
In the 11 days since the rocket attacks on Tel Aviv, terror groups in the Strip have stepped up violence along the Gaza border, launching dozens of balloon-borne incendiary and explosive devices into southern Israel and conducting nightly riots along the security fence that are meant to disrupt the lives of Israeli civilians living near Gaza and the soldiers stationed there.
On Sunday night, an Israeli tank targeted two Hamas posts along the Gaza border, following a number of cross-border attacks throughout the day, the military said. On Saturday night, Israeli military aircraft bombed Hamas targets in Gaza after a rocket alarm sounded in some Israeli communities bordering the Strip, triggered by a powerful improvised bomb thrown at the border during late-night riots. A Palestinian was killed by Israeli fire during the clashes early Sunday, authorities in the Strip said. The 24-year-old man was fatally shot in the chest and two others were wounded, the Hamas-run health ministry said.
Israel says the demonstrations, night-time riots, airborne explosive and incendiary attacks are orchestrated by Hamas in order to provide cover for the organization’s nefarious activities along the security fence, including infiltration attempts, the planting of explosives and attacks on Israeli soldiers.
Their organizers have said the protests aim to achieve the “return” of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to lands that are now part of Israel, and pressure the Jewish state to lift its restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of the coastal enclave.
Israeli officials say the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants would destroy Israel’s Jewish character. They also maintain that the restrictions on movement are in place to prevent Hamas and other terrorist groups from smuggling weapons into the Strip.
Adaom Rasgon contributed to this report.