Israeli fighter jets on Wednesday morning bombed a number of targets in the Gaza Strip, after Palestinian terrorists in the coastal enclave fired a rocket at the southern city of Beersheba that exploded outside a home, causing significant damage but no injuries.
“In response to the rockets fired from Gaza at Israel overnight, IDF fighter jets have started attacking terror targets in Gaza,” the army said in a statement early in the morning, refusing to comment on the number and nature of the targets. The military later said it had hit 20 targets in Gaza.
No terror groups took responsibility for the rocket attack. Hamas and the second-largest terror group in the Strip, the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, released a joint public statement condemning the rocket attack and saying it threatened to derail efforts to reach a negotiated settlement.
“We reject all irresponsible attempts that seek to… destroy the Egyptian efforts including the firing of rockets last night,” the groups said, referring to an Egyptian-led negotiation effort.
However, Hamas and PIJ added, “We affirm our preparedness to confront the occupation’s assaults. Our guns will continue to be a protective shield for our people and our weapons are drawn at the face of our enemy.”
A few hours after the air force began its strikes in Gaza, an Israeli aircraft fired at a group of Palestinians attempting to launch a rocket at Israel from the northern Gaza Strip, the Israel Defense Forces said, triggering sirens in nearby Israeli communities.
One Palestinian was killed in the strike, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry.
“An IDF aircraft attacked a group of terrorists in the northern Gaza Strip during an attempt to conduct a rocket launch at Israeli territory,” the army said in a statement.
“During the event, the ‘Code Red’ siren was activated in the Hof Ashkelon Region,” it added, using the codename for the rocket alert system.
Palestinian media reported the retaliatory strikes were taking place throughout the Gaza Strip — in southern Gaza in Rafah and Khan Younis, around the central Gaza City and in the north of the enclave near Beit Lahiya.
Three people were also moderately wounded in the strikes near Rafah, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
Palestinian media indicated that one of the targets struck by the IDF belonged to Hamas’s naval commando unit.
The Palestinian killed in the IDF strike in the northern Strip was identified as Naji Ahmed Za’anin, 25.
In light of the flareup, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to meet with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabat, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman and other top security brass, the Prime Minister’s Office said Wednesday morning.
IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot cut short a work visit to the United States to return to Israel in the wake of the attack.
The rockets fired by Palestinian terrorists at Israel in the predawn hours of Wednesday morning came on the heels of weeks of soaring tensions.
One targeted Beersheba, which is located some 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Strip. The rocket used in the attack was not the standard Grad variety, but an improved version with a larger warhead, which caused a large amount of damage to the building hit.
The explosion ripped off the front of the building and caused significant damage to the internal rooms and the roof. The mother inside had brought her three children into the building’s bomb shelter before the rocket hit.
In addition, a 50-year-old woman and a 40-year-old man were taken to the hospital for light injuries they sustained while running to a bomb shelter. A 20-year-old woman was also taken to Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center after she had a panic attack as a result of the rocket attack.
The second rocket fell out at sea across from the greater Tel Aviv area, known in Israel as Gush Dan. The military would only confirm that it struck “off the coast of a large city.”
Rocket attacks on Beersheba — home to more than 200,000 people — are rare and considered a major escalation. It was only the second rocket fired at Beersheba since the 2014 Gaza war. The previous rocket, which struck a field north of Beersheba on August 9, came as Palestinians fired dozens of projectiles at Israeli communities along the Gaza border.
The attack came as an Egyptian military intelligence delegation was visiting the enclave. Palestinian media reported that the group was working to soothe tensions following the rocket attack and prevent war.
On Tuesday, Israel’s defense minister warned that the military was gearing up for a major strike on Gaza to stop ongoing violence.
Following the rocket attack, schools were closed in Beersheba and in the communities immediately surrounding the Gaza Strip, the army said.
Residents of the Gaza periphery were also barred from gathering in groups larger than 300 people outdoors and 500 people indoors.
The security cabinet had been scheduled to meet later in the day on Wednesday, but the meeting was canceled following the rocket attack.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman ordered that the two crossings between Gaza and Israel — Erez for pedestrians and Kerem Shalom for goods — remain closed Wednesday in light of the attack. In addition, the fishing zone for Gazans was cut in half, to three nautical miles from the shore, his office said.
Most of the attacks from the Gaza Strip are conducted with mortars or short-range Qassam rockets. Palestinian terror groups can only reach Beersheba with longer-range rockets.
— Joe (@Jtruzmah) October 17, 2018
The attack come as Liberman urged the cabinet to authorize a large-scale military campaign against the Hamas terror group in Gaza in light of ongoing riots and violence along the Strip’s security fence.
“I’ve held a series of meetings with the head of the Southern Command, the head of the [Gaza] Division, the brigade commanders, the battalion commanders, also with soldiers. My impression is that they all have reached the understanding that the situation as it is today cannot continue,” he said Tuesday.
According to the defense minister’s assessment, a “serious blow” to Hamas would result in four to five years of calm along the Gaza border — akin to the quiet that persisted from the end of the 2014 war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, until the start of the current round of clashes in late March, a few limited skirmishes notwithstanding.
Since March 30, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have participated in a series of protests and riots dubbed the “Great March of Return,” which have mostly involved the burning of tires and rock-throwing along the security fence, but have also seen shooting attacks and bombings as well as the sending of incendiary balloons and kites into Israel.
There have also been several flareups that took Israel and Hamas to the brink of war, with Palestinians firing rockets into Israel and the IDF responding with airstrikes.
Some 155 Palestinians have been killed and thousands more have been injured in the clashes with IDF troops, according to AP figures; Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of the dead were its members. One Israeli soldier was shot dead by a sniper on the border.
The riots began as weekly events, but in recent weeks — due to both an internal Palestinian conflict and failed indirect negotiations with Israel — the clashes have become a daily event.
The defense minister said Tuesday that the “straw that broke the camel’s back” and convinced him that a full-scale military action was necessary in Gaza was the rioting that took place along the border last Friday evening, after Israel allowed additional fuel into the Strip that had been purchased by Qatar.
“We have exhausted all other options in Gaza,” Liberman said during a visit to the IDF’s Gaza Division headquarters near the Strip.
“Now is the time to make decisions,” he added.
The security cabinet, which approves such military campaigns, met Sunday to discuss the possibility of an attack against Hamas, but ultimately decided to wait until the week’s end in order to give negotiators a chance to convince the group to abandon its current violent tactics.
Adam Rasgon and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.