55,000 students to stay home

IDF closes roads, train line near Gaza amid fears of fresh fighting

Southern Israel girds for rocket fire, closing schools, opening bomb shelters, as Palestinian Islamic Jihad vows revenge after Israeli airstrike kills 2 of its members in Syria

An Israeli airstrike in Gaza City early Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
An Israeli airstrike in Gaza City early Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

The military on Monday closed roads, schools, and a train line around Gaza on Monday, following a large exchange of fire between Israel and terror groups in the Strip, amid concerns of renewed violence.

The closures followed a day of intense violence between the groups, including dozens of rockets fired at the south and Israeli retaliatory strikes against the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group’s bases in both Gaza and inside Syria.

International efforts to negotiate a firm ceasefire failed, leading to fears of fresh violence, Israel’s Channel 13 news said, citing unspecified Palestinian media reports.

The IDF announced early Monday that it was restricting access to several roadways around the northern part of the Strip, including portions of the Route 4, Route 34 and Route 232 highways. Several tourist sites in the area were also shuttered, including Zikim beach just north of the border.

Israel Railways said in a statement that trains would not operate between Ashkelon and Beersheba and that the stations in Sderot, Netivot and Ofakim — in the area where the tracks sometimes pass just a few hundred meters from the Gaza border — would be closed.

The scene of a car hit by a missile fired from the Gaza Strip near the Israel-Gaza border on May 5, 2019. (Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash90)

Terror groups in the Gaza Strip have in the past threatened to attack Israeli trains and have successfully targeted vehicles with anti-tank guided missiles on several occasions, most recently in an attack last May on a car on the Route 34 highway that killed 68-year-old Moshe Feder.

The army on Monday also warned drivers against stopping their vehicles on roads in the area around Gaza for fear of such attacks.

Schools were closed in the cities of Ashkelon, Sderot, and Netivot, as well as in the Eshkol, Sha’ar Hanegev, Sdot Negev and Hof Ashkelon regions. Large outdoor gatherings were also forbidden in these areas, and residents of the Gaza periphery were only permitted to go to work if they were in close proximity to a bomb shelter.

In addition, the military announced that it was restricting access to several roads around the northern part of the Strip, which have in the past been targeted by anti-tank guided missile attacks, and also shuttered several tourist sites near Gaza, including Zikim beach just north of the border. Train service through this area was also halted.

In total, some 55,000 students were expected to stay home from school Monday, the Education Ministry said.

Ashkelon on Sunday said it was opening all of its public bomb shelters, and the Southern Police District announced it was bringing in additional officers to the area in case the rocket fire continued.

The IDF launched a series of retaliatory airstrikes on Palestinian Islamic Jihad sites in both Syria and the Gaza Strip on Sunday night in response to waves of rocket attacks by the Iran-backed terror group throughout the evening, the military said.

Islamic Jihad said in a statement that the airstrikes in Syria killed two of its members, identifying them as Salim Salim, 24, and Ziad Mansour, 23. It did not disclose their nationalities or elaborate on their roles. The terrorist group vowed to avenge the deaths of its members.

According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor, four other pro-Iran fighters from unspecified militias were also killed in the Israeli strikes in Syria.

“The new aggression will not make us stop resisting … and we promise to God that the response to this ugly crime will come. The blood of the martyrs is costly and hasn’t been spilled for nothing,” the group said in a statement according to Hebrew media reports.

A picture taken on February 23, 2020, shows Israeli interception missiles from the Iron Dome defense system, intercepting rockets fired by Palestinian terrorists over Gaza City. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Israel rarely acknowledges conducting airstrikes in Syria, save for those that are in retaliation to attacks coming from there.

Throughout Sunday evening, some 30 rockets and mortar shells were fired at southern Israel from the Gaza Strip, approximately half of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. The rest appeared to have landed in open areas. Some shrapnel caused light property damage, but no injuries were reported.

The rocket fire came after an irregular clash along the Gaza border earlier Sunday in which Israeli troops shot dead a member Palestinian Islamic Jihad as he planted an improvised explosive device along the border. The Israeli military then retrieved his body, using a bulldozer.

An Israeli military bulldozer enters the Gaza buffer zone to retrieve the body of a suspected terrorist on February 23, 2020. (Screen capture/Shehab news)

The retrieval of the corpse was apparently part of Defense Minister Naftali Bennett’s plan to “hoard” the corpses of Palestinian terrorists in order to use them as “bargaining chips” in negotiations for the release of two Israeli men, and the remains of two fallen Israeli soldiers, who are being held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The IDF said the strikes in Syria and Gaza were in response to both the morning’s attempted IED attack and the rocket fire throughout the evening.

The IDF said its fighter jets targeted the main base of the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad terror group in Syria, which it said was used to develop new weapons and to manufacture “tens of kilograms of [ammonium perchlorate]” rocket fuel each month.

In addition to the strikes outside Damascus, the IDF bombed several Islamic Jihad sites in the Gaza Strip. The military said one of its aircraft also targeted a group of Islamic Jihad members preparing to launch rockets from the northern Gaza Strip and that “a hit was identified.” The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry reported that four people were injured in the strike.

The IDF confirmed reports in Palestinian media that it struck military bases and weapons depots belonging to the terror group in Beit Lahiya, Rafah and Khan Younis.

The smoke trail of a rocket, fired by Palestinian terrorists, flying over the Gaza Strip, on February 23, 2020. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

In announcing the airstrikes on Islamic Jihad targets, the IDF notably did not mention the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group, with which Israel hopes to negotiate a ceasefire agreement. In the past, Israel held Hamas responsible for all violence emanating from the Strip, regardless of which terror group was behind it. However, the IDF has increasingly differentiated between Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which Israel believes is responsible for the majority of the violence along the Gaza border in recent months.

In November, Israel fought a punishing two-day battle with the Islamic Jihad, sparked by the IDF killing one of the terror group’s leaders — Baha Abu al-Ata — whom Israel believed was responsible for most of the group’s aggressive actions.

During that round of fighting, the IDF reportedly targeted one of the group’s senior leaders — Akram al-Ajouri — who lives in Syria, but missed him.

Islamic Jihad took responsibility for Sunday’s rocket attacks, writing on its website that it fired the rockets in response to Israel taking the terrorist operative’s corpse earlier in the day.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Bennett and senior members of Israel’s security services met in the military’s Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv on Sunday night to discuss both a response to the attack and the situation in the Gaza Strip in general.

The border clashes come amid reports of ongoing efforts by Israel to broker a ceasefire agreement with Gaza terror groups, following weeks of intermittent rocket fire and the regular launching of balloon-borne explosive devices into Israel.

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