Two terror groups in Gaza took responsibility on Saturday for the salvos of rockets fired at Israel overnight, saying the attack was in response to violent clashes in Jerusalem in recent days and that worse was still to come.
Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s Abu Ali Mustapha Brigades said that they were behind the 36 rockets fired at Israel, linking the attack to the unrest in and around the Old City.
“We will burn the occupation’s settlements for you, O Jerusalem. The greatest [response] has yet to come,” a spokesperson for the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade said.
The rocket attack followed days of tensions and clashes in Jerusalem and the West Bank that involved Palestinian and Israeli civilians as well as Israeli security forces. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan normally sees increased tensions around the Old City, which houses the Temple Mount site, holy to both Jews and Muslims.
Terrorists fired 36 rockets toward Israel from the Gaza Strip overnight with six projectiles intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, the Israel Defense Forces said Saturday morning.
The barrages were the worst assault from the Strip in many months and while there were no Israeli injuries, the rockets did cause damage in a number of communities.
Official Hamas media tracked the launch of rockets across the Gaza Strip, reporting their firing in real-time, leading some to speculate that the terror group was covertly involved.
Hamas did not take responsibility for the rocket fire, however. Israel has stressed in the past it holds Hamas, Gaza’s rulers, responsible for all violence emanating from the Strip.
“The Palestinian resistance is ready to respond to aggression, even the score with the occupation and prevent its violations against our people,” Hamas spokesperson Abd al-Latif al-Qanou said.
The Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group also connected the rocket fire to the violence in Jerusalem.
“The Al-Aqsa [mosque] is a red line and the entire Palestinian people stands behind the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem,” the group said in a statement. “We will not allow the settlers to defile [al-Aqsa]. The Palestinian people will, in their unity, thwart the enemy’s plots.”
The UN special envoy for the Middle East process, Tor Wennesland, said Saturday that he was “alarmed” by the escalation in violence in Jerusalem and around the Strip and that the firing of rockets toward Israeli civilians was a violation of international law.
“The provocative acts across Jerusalem must cease. The indiscriminate launching of rockets towards Israeli population centers violates international law and must stop immediately,” Wennesland said in a statement.
“I condemn all such acts of violence and I reiterate my call upon all sides to exercise maximum restraint and avoid further escalation, particularly during the Holy month of Ramadan and this politically charged time for all,” Wennesland said. “The UN is working with all concerned parties to de-escalate the situation.”
Sirens sounded in numerous Israeli communities near the Strip overnight, including Ashkelon and the Eshkol, Sdot Negev, Sha’ar Hanegev and Hof Ashkelon regional councils as the rockets were fired toward Israel.
The Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted six of the projectiles. Some fell in communities while others landed in open areas. Iron Dome is programmed to not deploy when rockets are projected to hit non-populated areas — it was unclear why it had not activated to intercept the projectiles that landed in the border towns.
In response to the missiles the Israeli military struck multiple Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip in the early hours of Saturday morning, including rocket launchers and underground infrastructure, the IDF said, in response to several salvos of rockets fired into Israel overnight.
There were no immediate reports of casualties in the Gaza strikes.
Israeli defense officials met on Saturday morning to assess the situation, and were set to hold additional consultations later in the day.
The Israel Defense Forces’ Home Front Command initially instructed residents in areas under threat to remain close to shelters, ordered the closure of Zikim beach, banned outside gatherings and agricultural work near the security fence and limited groups to under 100 people indoors. However, it later removed the restrictions.
The rocket barrages came hours after Hamas held a series of protests in the Strip and called for violence against Israel in the wake of fierce clashes Thursday in Jerusalem between police, extremist Jewish activists and Palestinian protesters.
Addressing Gazan protesters on Friday, senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar condemned the decision of some Arab states to normalize relations with Israel last year and lashed out at the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank for continuing its security coordination with Israel.
“After a long series of protests and demonstrations, we have reached the conclusion that without weapons, we cannot liberate our land, protect our holy sites, bringing back our people to their land or maintain our dignity,” he said.
The Jerusalem violence continued on Friday evening.
The rocket attacks came during a general lull in violence from the Gaza Strip in recent months, amid a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and as the enclave grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.
A single rocket was fired into Israel from Gaza last Friday. Another was fired the day before. Neither rocket caused injuries or damage, and the IDF hit Hamas targets in response.
Last month, a rocket was fired toward Beersheba as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a campaign stop in the southern city ahead of the March 23 elections.
The last time a rocket barrage hit Israel was in September, when Palestinian terrorists fired 13 rockets in response to Israel signing peace deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Two Israelis were hurt when a rocket hit Ashdod, one moderately and another lightly.
Prior to that, the last major flareup occurred in November of 2019, after Israel killed Baha Abu al-Ata, a senior commander in the military wing of the Islamic Jihad terror group. The assassination led to days of rocket fire in which hundreds of projectiles targeted Israeli cities.
In both cases, Israel retaliated with waves of airstrikes in the Strip.
Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.