The IDF beefed up its ground forces around the Gaza Strip on Thursday as tensions continued to rise along the southern border region and in East Jerusalem, where the recent killing of a Muslim teenager triggered widespread riots on Wednesday.
But the move came in conjunction with unusually soothing messages from the army. “We want to deescalate the situation and restore calm,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, who described the deployment as defensive in nature.
The region has been increasingly tense since the June 12 kidnapping of three Israeli teens and the onset of the holy month of Ramadan; tensions have been further raised by the discovery of the teens’ bodies June 30, the killing of Muhammad Abu Khdeir in East Jerusalem on Wednesday, and the steady rain of rockets over the past three weeks.
Hamas, which has apparently taken part in the rocket fire recently for the first time since 2012, failed in its attempt to kidnap and trade the Israeli teens for Palestinian prisoners, Lerner said, and therefore has been “pushed into a corner.”
In the West Bank, he added, the army’s current strategy comprises three main components: finding those responsible for the killings of Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel; finding those who killed Muhammad Abu Khdeir, the 16 year-old boy who was abducted from his hometown of Beit Hanina on Wednesday; and avoiding violence on the first Friday of Ramadan.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, in advance of Friday’s mass prayer gatherings, has instructed all Central Command troops to “limit points of friction,” Lerner said.
Israel’s cabinet, meanwhile, has remained mum on possible anti-Hamas operations in the wake of the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teens by Hebron-based Hamas members.
Whether or not a larger IDF operation is imminent, the buildup is a message to Hamas — under pressure from the shuttering of its border with Egypt, a multi-year siege on its Israeli border and a collapsing economy in the Strip — that escalation could wreak significant damage to Gaza and its rulers.
Rocket fire from Gaza damaged two buildings in Sderot on Thursday morning. No injuries were reported. One of the rockets hit the side of a building that contains a preschool, but did not explode. The area was closed off to passersby, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld tweeted on Thursday morning, as police sappers removed the unexploded warhead.
Israel’s Iron Dome system shot down two rockets fired from Gaza fired in the direction of the southern town of Netivot early Thursday morning.
Security officials said Thursday that Hamas was believed to be responsible for the continuing salvo of rockets striking southern towns. Officials believe the organization is responding to rising tensions in the West Bank in the wake of the kidnapping-murder of an Arab teen in East Jerusalem this week, which officials believe may have been an attack by extremist Jews in retaliation for the murder of the Jewish teens earlier this month.
Photos of the damaged buildings in Sderot were posted online Thursday by Channel 2 television news and the IDF.
— החדשות – N12 (@N12News) July 3, 2014
— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) July 3, 2014
— החדשות – N12 (@N12News) July 3, 2014
Four more rockets were fired early Thursday morning, but landed in open terrain. Earlier, three rockets set off the warning sirens in the Sdot Negev Regional Council. All three landed in open terrain, causing no injuries or damage.
Throughout Wednesday and into Thursday, Israeli jets carried out 15 precision strikes in the Gaza Strip. At least 10 Palestinians were injured, according to reports.
The IDF confirmed the strikes in a statement saying Hamas targets were hit, “including concealed rocket launchers, weapon storage facilities and terror activity sites.”
On Wednesday night, three rockets fired from Gaza exploded near residential buildings in the southern city of Sderot, causing damage to the buildings and to several vehicles as well as cutting off power to several streets in the city, officials said.
Two of the rockets hit residential buildings while a third fell against a reinforced shelter inside the city but did not cause damage.
Two other rockets fired earlier fell in open fields outside the city, security officials said.
Over 20 rockets were fired from Gaza throughout Wednesday, repeatedly setting off warning sirens in the towns of the Gaza periphery.
On Wednesday evening Israeli jets struck in the Gaza Strip, hitting a “launching site,” the army said.
The Gaza-Israel border has seen a sharp military escalation in recent days, with Hamas claiming responsibility for several rocket attacks and the Israel Air Force striking numerous targets in response to the salvos.
Israel’s leaders have blamed Hamas for the three teens’ murders June 12. The two suspected kidnappers, Amer Abu Aysha and Marwan Kawasme — still at large — are known members of Hamas in Hebron.
Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal has denied his movement’s involvement in the killing, and tried via the Turkish prime minister to dissuade Israel from launching a massive strike on the Gaza Strip, Sky News Arabia reported on Wednesday.
Unnamed sources told the British channel that Mashaal has attempted to convey a message to Israel through the Turks saying that Hamas is uninterested in escalation, and continues to adhere to a ceasefire agreement reached with Israel following Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012. Mashaal also said that “Hamas had no involvement or knowledge” of the teens’ kidnapping and killing.
Naftali Fraenkel, 16, Gil-ad Shaar, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19, were laid to rest on Tuesday.