Schools canceled in areas close to Gaza as attacks continue

250 rockets fired at Israel; IDF bombs 120 Gaza sites, including attack tunnel

Army says it destroyed cross-border tunnel, underground rocket factory; IDF denies Palestinian claim Gazan baby, her pregnant aunt killed in Israeli airstrike

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

An explosion is seen among buildings during an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City in response to rocket fire from the Palestinian enclave on May 4, 2019. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)
An explosion is seen among buildings during an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City in response to rocket fire from the Palestinian enclave on May 4, 2019. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Palestinian terror groups shot hundreds of rockets at Israel, and the Israel Defense Forces hit back and bombed more than 100 targets in the Gaza Strip, in an intense round of fighting that engulfed the region this weekend.

As of Saturday night, the fighting between the terror groups in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and Israel showed no signs of slowing, with multiple volleys of rockets being fired from Gaza at the southern city Beersheba around midnight.

Over 250 rockets were fired at Israel throughout the day, most of them at the towns closest to the Gaza border, but some reached as far as Rehovot and Ashdod. At least three Israeli civilians were wounded in the attacks, one of them an 80-year-old woman who was badly hurt.

According to the IDF, some 70 percent of the incoming rockets and mortar shells struck open fields, where they caused neither injury nor damage. Of the remaining 30 percent, which were heading toward populated areas, most were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. Several directly struck homes or landed just outside them. At least two rockets landed in the courtyards of schools in southern Israel, which were empty due to the weekend, causing damage to the buildings.

A home in southern Israel’s Shaar Hanegev Regional Council damaged by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip is seen on May 4, 2019. (Shaar Hanegev Regional Council)

In response, Israel hit at least 120 targets in Gaza on Saturday, including a cross-border attack tunnel, an underground rocket factory and a six-story building used by Hamas’s military intelligence, the army said. At least two Palestinians were reported killed, both of whom were said to have been part of rocket launching teams.

The military was only able to hit a small number of these cells as terror groups in the Strip typically use timers and other controls to launch projectiles from afar in order to avoid Israeli airstrikes.

The Israeli military also flattened a building housing the offices of the Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency, prompting outcries of condemnation from Ankara. The IDF said the eight-story building was used by the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups to conduct terrorist activities.

The Israeli army said it was prepared to continue conducting airstrikes if the attacks from Gaza continued. Israeli military officials told reporters that the fighting could continue for several days. Terror groups in the enclave made similar threats, saying they would attack deeper into Israel if the IDF continued its strikes.

A picture taken from the Gaza Strip on May 4, 2019, shows rockets being toward Israel. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Israel called for the United Nations to denounce the rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip and “support Israel’s right to self-defense and defensive actions,” Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said in a statement.

The fresh exchange — one of the larger battles of the past year — began on Friday evening when Palestinians in the Strip shot two soldiers on patrol near the border in southern Gaza. A male soldier was moderately wounded, and a female soldier was lightly hurt, the IDF said. In response, the Israeli military bombed a Hamas post, killing two of the terror group’s operatives.

Shortly after 9:30 on Saturday morning, terror groups in the Strip began launching rockets and mortar shells at Israel.

In response, the military launched a series of strikes from air and land, hitting targets throughout the coastal enclave connected to Hamas, the islamist group that rules Gaza, and the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist organization.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry claimed a Palestinian baby and her pregnant aunt were killed when their home was hit by one of the Israeli retaliatory strikes on Saturday.

The IDF Arabic-language spokesperson Maj. Avichay Adraee denied the allegation, and said the military believes the woman and child were killed in a failed rocket attack by Palestinian terrorists in a populated area, not in an Israeli airstrike.

Gaza’s health ministry said two others were killed and at least 40 were injured in the strikes.

In light of the ongoing battles, the military canceled school for the Israeli cities and towns within approximately 40 kilometers of the Gaza Strip for the following day.

Beginning Saturday night, workplaces in this region were only allowed open if they had access to a bomb shelter. Gatherings of more than 300 people were not allowed, including in shopping centers, the army said.

There were no special safety instructions for the rest of the country.

Israel also closed the Kerem Shalom and Erez crossings into the Strip following the rocket attacks, as well as the fishing zones off the Gaza coast.

The IDF said it targeted dozens of bases and facilities controlled by the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups throughout the Strip. Despite the large number of targets, there were relatively few injuries reported in the strikes, as the sites had largely been abandoned ahead of time.

The army said that among its targets was an Islamic Jihad cross-border attack tunnel in southern Gaza. The military released footage showing members of the terror group excavating the underground passage, using ostensibly civilian vehicles and tools.

“In recent weeks [Islamic Jihad] has accelerated its digging in order to carry out an attack,” IDF spokesman Ronen Manelis said.

The army said it also destroyed an underground Hamas rocket production facility.

“This facility is unique in its manufacturing capabilities and is a key capability of the group to produce rockets in the Strip,” the army said.

A six-story building in Gaza City’s Rimal neighborhood that Israel says housed the Hamas terror group’s military intelligence services, which was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in response to rocket fire from the coastal enclave on May 4, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

The IDF also flattened two multi-story buildings in Gaza City’s Rimal neighborhood. The army said one of them, a six-story structure, housed the Hamas terror group’s military intelligence and internal security services.

In both cases, the military used the “knock on the roof” technique, in which a dummy bomb is first dropped on the building to warn those inside of the coming full-power attack.

In the past year, the Israeli military has targeted three other buildings connected to this branch of Hamas.

Footage of the airstrike was quickly shared on social media.

The military said the other building bombed by Israel in Rimal, which housed the Anadolu news agency, was used for terrorist purposes.

“The structure that was attacked was used by Hamas’s West Bank task force, which is responsible for directing terrorist operatives in the Judea and Samaria region to create terrorist infrastructure and to pass messages for terrorist activities and for transferring money and logistical support in order to carry out terror attacks against Israeli civilians,” the army said in a statement.

The military said the building also housed offices of senior members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which were “used for terrorist purposes.”

The destruction of the state-run news outlet was denounced by Turkey, who called it a “crime against humanity.” Anadolu shared footage from the aftermath on its YouTube page.

“Targeting of Anadolu Agency’s Gaza office is new example of Israel’s unrestrained aggression. Israeli violence against innocent people without distinction is a crime against humanity. Those who encourage Israel are also guilty. [We] will keep defending Palestinian cause, even if alone,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a tweet.

The IDF said it also targeted several Hamas compounds in Gaza City used for training and for weapons production. It said one of the sites was used by the organization’s naval force. It also struck several Islamic Jihad compounds throughout the Strip, and a number of rocket launchers and outposts near the border.

One Israeli woman, approximately 80 years old, was seriously hurt after being hit by shrapnel from a rocket in Kiryat Gat, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) northeast of the Gaza Strip. A man was in a moderate condition after he was injured by shrapnel during a rocket attack on the coastal city of Ashkelon. In the Bedouin town of Lakia, a 45-year-old man was lightly injured, sustaining shrapnel wounds to the leg, medics said.

Medics treat a woman hurt by rocket shrapnel in Kiryat Gat on May 4, 2019 (Channel 12)

At least 10 other people were lightly injured over the course of the day, mostly by falling while running to bomb shelters.

A senior Israeli official told Channel 13 news that there is growing understanding there will not be an immediate return to calm on the southern border, with an expectation of “at least two to three days of fighting.”

Manelis said the military has air defense systems in place in case of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip toward the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and that the IDF is prepared for the fighting to last a few days and will call up some reservists from intelligence and air defense units, as well as the Home Front Command.

An Israeli soldier at the scene where a house was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on May 4, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Hamas in a statement said it was “prepared to respond to Israel’s crimes” and vowed to stop it from “spilling the blood of our people.” Gaza’s second-largest terror group, Islamic Jihad, threatened to disrupt the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest, due to take place in Tel Aviv May 14-18, as well as issuing a video threatening the Dimona nuclear facility, Ben Gurion Airport and other sensitive sites in Israel.

An unidentified Hamas source told the Haaretz newspaper that the group had “warned of escalation for the past two weeks due to the delay in carrying out the understandings of the ceasefire. In Israel they asked for calm and got it, and in the Strip we didn’t get any improvement.”

Roads and highways in southern Israel closest to the Gaza border were closed off beginning Friday night as the IDF was concerned of possible attempts to kidnap, snipe at or launch anti-tank missiles at forces and civilians near the border.

Palestinianss clash with Israeli troops during protests at the Israel-Gaza border, on May 3, 2019 (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)

The exchange on Friday and Saturday, which marked a serious escalation of violence, came during weekly border protests in which several thousand Gazans gathered at five sites. Some of the demonstrators rioted, throwing rocks and makeshift explosive devices at soldiers, who responded with tear gas and occasional live fire.

Following heavy fighting in early April, Israel agreed to ease the blockade in exchange for a halt to rocket fire. This included expanding a fishing zone off Gaza’s coast, increasing imports into Gaza and allowing the Gulf state of Qatar to deliver aid to cash-strapped Gaza.

That agreement appeared to be under stress in recent days, with Palestinians launching arson balloons and rockets into Israel and Israeli warplanes striking Hamas targets. Hamas has said the incendiary balloons were a message to Israel not to hold up the transfer of millions of dollars in Qatari aid funds to the cash-strapped Hamas government in Gaza.

On Thursday, a Hamas delegation led by the group’s Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar traveled to Cairo for talks with Egyptian officials on a truce with Israel, Hamas officials said.

Israel and Egypt have maintained a crippling blockade on Gaza since Hamas, which seeks to destroy Israel, seized control of the territory in 2007. Jerusalem says it is necessary to prevent terror groups from rearming and becoming an even greater menace.

The sides are bitter enemies and have fought three wars and engaged in numerous smaller flare-ups of violence.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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