Palestinians fire 2 mortars into Israel; IDF hits targets in southern Gaza

Shells land in open field in southern Israel; near-daily projectile fire and balloon-borne explosive attacks persist, with limited Israeli response

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative: Rockets are fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel, on November 13, 2019. (Anas Baba/AFP)
Illustrative: Rockets are fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel, on November 13, 2019. (Anas Baba/AFP)

Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip fired two mortar shells at southern Israel on Wednesday night, the military said, amid growing tensions in the enclave.

The projectiles apparently struck an open field in southern Israel. No damage or injuries were reported.

Shortly after midnight, Israeli aircraft responded by hitting Hamas tunnel infrastructure in southern Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces said, adding that this was in response to both the mortar attack and to a number of balloon-borne explosive devices that were flown into southern Israel from Gaza throughout the day.

As the mortar shells were heading toward an unpopulated area, no rocket sirens were triggered in Israeli communities, though alerts were sent to cellphones in the vicinity of the impact area, the Israel Defense Forces said.

The past week has seen near-daily rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza, during which dozens of balloon-borne explosive devices were also launched from the Hamas-ruled Strip toward southern Israel.

“We understand that Hamas is letting these things happen in the past few weeks, especially with the balloons, as well as looking the other way while others fire rockets and mortar shells,” IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said.

Israeli defense officials believe that the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group is trying to increase pressure on Israel in a bid to extract greater concessions in ongoing ceasefire negotiations.

Zilberman said the IDF was using a combination of both military strikes and civil sanctions to counter these near-daily attacks.

“We won’t allow this situation with the balloons to continue,” he said.

Zilberman said the overnight airstrikes targeted one piece of underground infrastructure in Gaza City and a logistic tunnel in southern Gaza.

Earlier on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told some municipal leaders in the Gaza area that Israel could launch extensive military operations in the Palestinian enclave — before the upcoming Knesset elections if necessary — should Palestinian terrorists continue firing rockets and launching balloon-borne explosive devices at southern Israel.

Netanyahu told the council chairmen that while Israel was making significant efforts to ensure calm in the area, the military was ready for an operation in Gaza if needed, according to Hebrew media reports.

Netanyahu only met with southern municipal leaders who are also members of his Likud party, sparking fury among the mayors who were not invited to the meeting.

In September, Netanyahu made similar threats that a war could break out before the national vote that month. That threat came shortly after he was pulled off stage in southern Israel during a campaign event due to rocket fire. The scene repeated itself later last year, in December, when the prime minister was similarly rushed to shelter.

Netanyahu and his chief political rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, traded barbs on Wednesday over the tensions in Gaza.

Gantz is “cute, but not a leader,” remarked Netanyahu of the former IDF chief of staff, who led the military under the prime minister during the 2014 Gaza war.

“I suggest Netanyahu first apply [Israeli] sovereignty to Netivot, Sderot and the Gaza border region,” shot back Gantz, referring to the prime minister’s campaign promises to annex areas of the West Bank, and listing southern cities under fire.

Earlier Wednesday, the Israeli military announced it was reducing the size of the Gaza fishing zone by a third in light of the continued rocket fire and arson attacks.

“Following security consultations, it has been decided today (Wednesday), to restrict the fishing zone of the Gaza Strip from 15 nautical miles to 10 nautical miles, starting from 4 p.m. until further notice,” the Israeli military liaison to the Palestinians — known formally as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories — said in a statement.

In its statement, COGAT said Israel holds the Hamas terror group — the de facto ruler of the Gaza Strip — responsible for the attacks.

Israel routinely restricts the Gaza fishing zone in response to terrorist activities in the Strip, which some human rights groups decry as a form of collective punishment.

Suspected explosive device connected to a bunch of inflated latex gloves flown from Gaza, February 5, 2020 (Israel Police)

The military most recently imposed limits on the fishing area in December following a rocket attack from the Strip.

In one of the rocket attacks last week, a three-week-old Israeli infant was seriously injured after she was accidentally dropped while her mother ran into a bomb shelter.

In response to the launches, all of which have struck open fields in southern Israel, the IDF has conducted airstrikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.

Tensions between Israel and Gaza have been steadily rising over the past two weeks, after several months of relative calm following a major round of fighting in November. Fears have mounted in recent days of an escalation of violence in Gaza and the West Bank following the release last week of a US peace plan that is seen as heavily favoring Israel.

Late last month a senior Hamas official said the recent string of balloons was a signal to Israel to accelerate unofficial “understandings” meant to ease the blockade on the territory ruled by the terror group.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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