IDF deploys additional Iron Dome batteries near Gaza amid heightened tensions

IDF deploys additional Iron Dome batteries near Gaza amid heightened tensions

Local government calls for residents to keep bomb shelters ready in case of renewed rocket, mortar fire, after terror groups in Strip launch 45 projectiles

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

An operator walks by an Iron Dome missile defense battery near the city of Sderot in southern Israel on May 29, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
An operator walks by an Iron Dome missile defense battery near the city of Sderot in southern Israel on May 29, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The army deployed additional Iron Dome missile defense systems in southern Israel on Wednesday, after terror groups in the Gaza Strip launched dozens of rockets and mortar shells earlier in the day.

Residents of the area were encouraged to go about their daily lives as usual, but to also prepare themselves for the possibility of another round of violence.

“The Israel Defense Forces again deployed the Iron Dome in the region,” officials from the Eshkol region of southern Israel told residents in a letter.

“We encourage you to keep the windows of your bomb shelter closed or instead to instruct the members of your household how to get to the most protected part of your home,” the letter read.

Israelis inspect damage to a house in southern Israel caused by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip on 20, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Schools opened as usual on Wednesday, following the rocket and mortar attacks earlier that morning, though teachers led special sessions to speak with students about what had happened. Parents were also given the option to not send their child to school, though few did. Over 90 percent of students attended classes on Wednesday, according to an Eshkol spokesperson.

In addition to the additional defenses and preparations, Israeli leaders on Wednesday evening also warned Hamas, which rules Gaza, and other terror groups in the Strip, that the military was prepared to take offensive action as well.

“The intensity will increase as necessary,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a graduation ceremony for new IDF officers. “We are prepared for every scenario, and its best that our enemies understand this, and now.

“The steel fist of the IDF will powerfully strike anyone who attempts to harm us,” Netanyahu added.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, speaking at the same event, said simply: “About what happened [this morning] I only have four words to tell Hamas: That was a mistake.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (L) and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot at a graduation ceremony for new IDF officers on June 20, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry

The flare-up in the early hours of Wednesday morning could be traced to a number of incendiary and explosive kites and balloons that were flown into Israeli territory throughout the day on Tuesday.

These types of kite and balloon attacks have become a regular occurrence in the Gaza periphery in recent weeks, sparking hundreds of fires that have burned thousands of acres of farmland, forests and national parks, causing millions of shekels in damages.

In an effort to force the Hamas terrorist group to rein in the Palestinians launching these airborne arson devices, the military conducted a round of airstrikes in the Strip shortly after midnight, hitting three Hamas positions.

An explosion is seen from the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip after an airstrike by Israeli forces in response to dozens of rocket attacks by Palestinian terrorist groups from the coastal enclave on June 20, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)

In response to the Israeli air raid, Hamas and the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad launched nearly 50 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel over the course of nearly five hours, ending just before six in the morning.

At least eight projectiles exploded inside Israeli communities, causing damage but no injuries, including one that hit just outside a kindergarten. Seven of them struck in the Eshkol region, while the eight landed in a kibbutz in the Sha’ar Hanegev region, according to local government officials.

Seven projectiles were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, and three fell short of the border and landed inside Gaza, the army said. The rest appeared to have fallen in open fields.

A police sapper digs up a rocket fired from Gaza that landed outside a kindergarten in one of the communities of the Eshkol region on June 20, 2018. (Eshkol region)

On Wednesday morning, Gadi Yarkoni, the head of the Eshkol region, praised the IDF for carrying out the initial airstrikes in response to the Gazan arson attacks.

“Eshkol residents had a sleepless night last night,” Yarkoni said. “We support the IDF for its response to the terror kites, which harm our way of life. And we expect the IDF to continue working to bring back calm to the region, with no more rockets launched at our communities and homes, and no more fires in our fields.”

The Israeli military does not believe that Hamas is directly behind the incendiary kites and balloons that have wreaked havoc in southern Israel, but sees that the group is supporting the practice. In general, the IDF also holds Hamas responsible for any violence emanating from the Strip.

Two Palestinians help fly a ‘fire kite’ from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory during mass demonstrations along the security fence on June 8, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

“We see an effort made by Hamas to encourage and enhance the production and launching of these kites,” IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus told reporters Wednesday.

“It might have started spontaneously, but as Hamas saw the damage caused on the Israeli side, it has taken this offensive effort under its control and actively promotes it,” he said.

Hamas, meanwhile, blamed Israel for Wednesday’s exchange, accusing it of trying to “change the rules of engagement” by adopting the policy of carrying out strikes on its facilities in response to arson attacks from the Strip.

This standoff, with each side blaming the other for the flare-up, raised concerns that the security situation in the Gaza Strip could deteriorate into full-blown war.

“We can’t know how it ends, when it ends, but it looks like we are on the way to an escalation,” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told Hadashot news on Wednesday night.

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