Israeli ministers and Palestinian terror group Hamas traded threats and accusations Thursday, a day after rocket fire from Gaza at the southern city of Ashkelon forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt a campaign event and take cover.
In response, the Israeli military said warplanes and helicopter gunships struck several Hamas targets early Thursday, including military complexes.
There were no casualties in the IDF strikes as the sites were reportedly empty.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said his organization “places the full blame for the continued escalation in Gaza on the Israeli occupier. The escalation is the continuation of the stupidity and the aggression against the Palestinian people, and taking out [frustration from Israel’s] internal crises on the Strip.
“The extent of the bombings and their timing reflect the depth of the crisis, the confusion and the despair of the Zionist enemy in light of the new rules imposed by the Palestinian resistance. We will not stop defending our people and we won’t surrender.”
The single rocket fired toward Ashkelon was shot down by the Iron Dome missile defense system, according to the IDF. It broke a period of relative calm surrounding Gaza.
Netanyahu was in the middle of a campaign event in Ashkelon, a day ahead of the Likud leadership primary Thursday, when the rocket was fired, and was forced to evacuate to a bomb shelter along with the dozens of supporters in the room.
On Thursday, Housing Minister Yoav Gallant, a member of the security cabinet and a former military general, said Israel was heading toward an extensive military escalation in Gaza.
“We will know how to reach all our enemies,” Gallant told Army Radio. “In light of the situation in the Strip, in the end we will come to a significant confrontation that will change the rules of the game. Unfortunately we are on our way there.”
Science Minister Ofir Akunis told Kan public radio that “sooner or later there will be a large-scale, complex operation in Gaza. We are extending our hand in peace and instead receive suicide bombers, knives and one massacre or another. We have to deal with terror groups in their own language — first of all deal a very hard blow from which they will not recover for many years.”
Ministers have been making similar threats for years, but Gaza has not seen a major Israeli military operation since 2014 — only short flareups that regularly end with a return to the status quo.
This was the second time in recent months that Netanyahu had to be evacuated as a result of rocket fire from Gaza during a campaign event in the south.
Two rockets were fired at Ashdod and nearby Ashkelon from Gaza a week before the September national elections, triggering sirens that forced Netanyahu to rush offstage during a live broadcast of an address to Likud supporters.
In Wednesday evening’s incident, the prime minister returned to the stage after approximately 15 minutes and issued a threat to the terrorists behind the attack.
“The person who fired the rocket last time is no longer with us. The person who did it this time should start packing their things,” he said.
The prime minister was referring to last month’s assassination of Baha Abu al-Ata, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror leader who Israel believes ordered the rocket attack in September.
No Palestinian group claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack. Such sporadic launches of rockets and ensuing Israeli airstrikes have happened frequently despite an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire that ended two days of intense fighting in November.
In a statement early Thursday, the Israeli military said it held Hamas, the de facto ruler in the Strip, responsible for any activities in the Strip. “It will suffer the consequences of activities against Israeli citizens,” the army said.
In most cases, senior politicians refrain from announcing their visits to the area surrounding the Gaza Strip ahead of time out of concerns that it could attract attacks. That was not the case with the September and Wednesday night events. In both cases, the prime minister had publicized in advance that he would be attending.
Last week saw a series of mortar and rocket attacks, as well as several attempts by Palestinians to breach the border fence separating Israel and the Gaza Strip. However, on Monday Israel said it was extending the Gaza fishing zone back to 15 kilometers, a sign of a return to calm.
Judah Ari Gross and agencies contributed to this report.