Hamas braces for retaliatory strikes, as IDF hits back at Gaza shelling

Army responds to repeated mortar fire from Strip, while Palestinian terror group evacuates schools, offices in Strip

A tank is transported near Kibbutz Be'eri just outside the central Gaza Strip on April 13, 2016. (Corinna Kern/Flash90)
A tank is transported near Kibbutz Be'eri just outside the central Gaza Strip on April 13, 2016. (Corinna Kern/Flash90)

The Israel Defense Forces hit back Wednesday afternoon at repeated mortar fire from the Gaza Strip, as the Hamas terror group that controls the coastal territory began evacuating facilities in anticipation of a tougher Israeli response to almost 24 hours of cross-border tensions.

The army returned fire at suspected Hamas outposts after five separate mortar attacks in less than a day. In the most recent attack, a shell fired from Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood on Wednesday afternoon exploded inside Israel adjacent to the border fence, near Kibbutz Nahal Oz. No injuries or damage were reported.

The IDF said it opened fire at “suspicious positions” in Shejaiya following the shelling.

The Wednesday afternoon mortar attacks brought the number of attacks from Gaza in the past 24 hours to six.

Reports from the Gaza Strip said that a fire broke out in a Shejaiya power plant after it was struck by an IDF tank shell.

According to Palestinian reports, the escalating situation prompted Hamas to evacuate two schools and their headquarters in Gaza City over fears of IDF retaliatory strikes. The IDF, meanwhile, declared the area around Nahal Oz a closed military zone, Channel 10 reported.

Earlier Wednesday, mortar shells exploded near Israeli soldiers operating along the southern part of the Israel-Gaza border. Hours later, IDF troops stationed along the northern section of the border reported hearing two loud explosions, which were also believed to be the result of mortar fire.

There were no injuries or damage in either incident.

Following both attacks, the IDF responded with tank fire at positions inside Shejaiya. One tank shell hit an observation post manned by the military wing of Hamas. No casualties were reported though the outpost was said to be damaged.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Israeli soldiers as he tours the southern Israeli border with Gaza. May 03, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Israeli soldiers as he tours the southern Israeli border with Gaza. May 3, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Tensions began when Israeli soldiers along the Strip’s northern border came under attack Tuesday.

Gunfire from across the border struck an IDF vehicle operating nearby. No injuries were reported, but heavy engineering machinery was damaged by the volley, the army said.

Palestinian media in Gaza reported intense gunfire from Israeli forces near Kibbutz Nahal Oz immediately afterwards.

The flare-up came just hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toured a southern section of the Israel-Gaza border on Tuesday afternoon.

During his tour of the border with Gaza, Netanyahu told troops that the past two years, since the end of Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas, have been the quietest in many.

During the 50-day conflict, the Gaza-based terror organization lobbed hundreds of rockets and mortars at Israeli cities and towns. Mortars proved to be one of the deadliest means of attack, claiming the lives of 10 IDF soldiers in a single week, three Israeli civilians and a Thai national.

Although the area has been relatively calm since the end of the 2014 fighting, sporadic rocket fire and attacks on IDF patrols have often originated in areas adjacent to the border fence. In recent weeks, tensions along the border have increased, with Israeli officials warning of a possible uptick in violence.

There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the recent attacks, although Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri warned Israel not to “test the patience of the Palestinian resistance.”

Masri told the Palestinian news agency Ma’an on Wednesday that Israel would “pay a heavy price” for a “flagrant violation of the ceasefire agreement.”

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