IDF carries out fresh Gaza airstrikes, but says not looking for escalation
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IDF carries out fresh Gaza airstrikes, but says not looking for escalation

Israeli aircraft strike two more posts belonging to Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, which earlier fired mortar shells at soldiers northeast of the Strip

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

Illustrative: Smoke billows from a Palestinian Islamic Jihad position near Gaza City after Israeli aircraft bombed it on November 30, 2017, in retaliation for a mortar attack that targeted Israeli troops northeast of the Gaza Strip earlier in the day. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)
Illustrative: Smoke billows from a Palestinian Islamic Jihad position near Gaza City after Israeli aircraft bombed it on November 30, 2017, in retaliation for a mortar attack that targeted Israeli troops northeast of the Gaza Strip earlier in the day. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

The Israeli Air Force on Monday afternoon conducted fresh strikes on two Palestinian Islamic Jihad positions in the central Gaza Strip, in response to a mortar attack by the terror group against an IDF post earlier in the day, the army said.

According to the Gaza Health Ministry, three Gazans were lightly wounded in the Israeli bombing.

The additional airstrikes came even as the Israel Defense Forces said it was not looking to escalate the security situation in the Gaza and would only conduct further attacks in response to aggression by the terror group.

At approximately 2 p.m., operatives from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad launched 12 mortar shells at an Israeli military post northeast of the Gaza Strip. The attack appeared to be retaliation for the army demolishing the group’s attack tunnel, which stretched from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory, exactly a month ago, according to IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus.

Israeli soldiers sit on a tank close to the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip on October 30, 2017, near Kibbutz Kissufim in southern Israel. (AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA)

The army said no soldiers were injured in the barrage, but some light damage was caused to equipment.

A short while later, the army retaliated with tank fire and airstrikes that targeted two Palestinian Islamic Jihad and two Hamas positions in the northern Strip.

Before the second round of strikes, Conricus said “it was too early to say” if the army would carry out additional attacks in Gaza, but that it would depend on “actions taken by the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”

The spokesperson added, “we are not looking to escalate the situation or initiate hostilities.”

There were no reports of further violence from Gaza after the initial Israeli retaliatory strikes.

It was not clear if the mortar barrage comprised the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s entire revenge strategy or if more attacks were to come from the group. The army said it was prepared to counter additional attempts by the group to commit terror acts against Israeli troops and citizens.

Members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group attend the funeral of fellow terrorists killed in an Israeli operation to blow up a tunnel stretching from the Gaza Strip into Israel in central Gaza, on October 31, 2017. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

After the tunnel demolition on October 30, in which at least 14 terrorists were killed, including two of Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s top commanders, the group vowed it would avenge its operatives killed in the Israeli demolition.

The mortar attack came as rocket sirens sounded in the Israeli town of Sderot and other communities surrounding the Gaza Strip, though no missiles actually struck the Sha’ar Hanegev region.

As the mortar shells were fired at a very short range, the Iron Dome air defense battery was not activated, Conricus said.

An Israeli soldier stands guard next to Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, deployed close to the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip, near Kibbutz Kissufim in southern Israel, on October 30, 2017. (AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA)

The army said it knew the attack was carried out by the Islamic Jihad terror group.

“We know who conducted the attack, we even know them by name,” Conricus said.

Nevertheless, in accordance with its established policy, the military said it holds Hamas responsible “for any hostile activity perpetrated against Israel from the Gaza Strip.”

As such, both groups were targeted, he said.

Following the exchange, the army stopped construction on the underground barrier that is being built around the Gaza Strip, which is designed to counter terror groups’ attack tunnels, the officer said.

However, no other special instructions were given to residents, Conricus noted.

Train service was also temporarily halted from Sderot to Ashkelon, in accordance with an order from security forces, but later resumed.

Mourners carry the coffin of Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement terrorist Arafat Abu Morshed during the funeral at the Bureij refugee camp, in central Gaza of Palestinians killed in an Israeli operation to blow up a tunnel stretching from the Gaza Strip into Israel, on October 31, 2017. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

On October 30, the IDF blew up the group’s attack tunnel, which originated in the Gazan city of Khan Younis and crossed into Israeli territory.

The Palestinian Islamic Jihad said the tunnel was supposed to be used for “kidnapping soldiers in order to free prisoners [from Israeli prisons].”

According to the army, the tunnel had been under surveillance the entire time that it was inside Israeli territory and did not pose a threat to civilians.

The Palestinian Islamic Jihad said it would not back down on its “right” to retaliate against Israel for the tunnel explosion, which led to the deaths of 12 of its members, including two commanders, as well as two members of Hamas’s military wing.

Israeli officials told the terror group not to go through with its plans to react. In the weeks following, the army also kept farmers away from the fence and, in a dramatic move, deployed Iron Dome missile defense batteries in central Israel, including in the greater Tel Aviv area.

The army said later that killing the terrorists was not the primary objective of the tunnel demolition.

The bodies of five of the terrorists who were working on the tunnel inside Israeli territory were recovered by the IDF, the army said.

Dov Lieber contributed to this report.

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