IDF blames Hamas for rocket fire; terror group denies it

IDF hits more than 100 Hamas targets in Gaza after rockets fired at Tel Aviv

Palestinians fire 9 rockets at Israeli communities along Gaza border, Iron Dome intercepts 6; Israeli strikes come after 2 rockets fired at Tel Aviv for first time since 2014 war

A Palestinian inspects the damage at the Hamas Prisoners Ministry after Israeli airstrike, Gaza City, March 15, 2019 (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
A Palestinian inspects the damage at the Hamas Prisoners Ministry after Israeli airstrike, Gaza City, March 15, 2019 (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Israeli war planes hit over 100 Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip in a night of strikes after two rockets were fired at Tel Aviv for the first time since the 2014 war, the Israel Defense Forces said.

The strikes came after an urgent late night consultation between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense chiefs in Tel Aviv. “Decisions were taken,” an Israeli official said without elaborating.

Shortly after the strikes began, the IDF issued a statement saying the “Hamas terror group carried out the rocket fire.” Hamas has denied it was behind the move.

On Friday morning, IDF spokesman Ronen Manelis said that over 100 Hamas targets were hit in response to the fire on Tel Aviv; air strikes went on throughout the night.

The IDF said targets included the headquarters responsible for the planning and execution of attacks in the West Bank.

In addition, the army said an underground manufacturing site of standard-grade rockets in the Gaza Strip was hit, as well as a military training site that the IDF said served as Hamas’s drone center in the south of the enclave.

Hamas-linked Al-Aqsa TV reported that Israeli aircraft fired two missiles at a target in Khan Younis. It said that the aircraft then returned and attacked the same site four more times.

Israel Radio said the site was a base belonging to Hamas naval commandos.

Palestinian media also reported multiple strikes on Gaza City and at a target in Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza.

The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry said there were no immediate reports of casualties.

Warning sirens went off three times during the night in Israeli border communities near Gaza and once on Friday morning, with Palestinians firing nine projectiles at Israel.

The army said six were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system and one failed to clear the border. A further two rockets apparently fell in an open field. There were no reports of injuries or damage, although rocket fragments were discovered in a Sderot school.

An explosion caused by Israeli airstrikes is seen on Gaza City, early Friday, March 15, 2019. Israeli warplanes attacked targets in the southern Gaza Strip early Friday in response to a rare rocket attack on the Israeli city of Tel Aviv (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

The Israeli strikes on the Hamas-run Strip came after rockets were fired on Tel Aviv from Gaza. Sirens were triggered Thursday evening in central Israel, as two rockets from Gaza were fired at the heart of the country for the first time since a major conflict in 2014, signaling a possible dramatic escalation of violence by terror groups in the Strip just weeks before the Knesset elections.

Residents of Israel’s second-largest city and the surrounding metropolis of Gush Dan rushed to bomb shelters and reported hearing explosions. The rockets both hit open areas, and did not cause casualties. Five people were treated for shock by paramedics.

Screen capture from video showing the Tel Aviv skyline on March 14 as rocket warning sirens blare after the launch of two rockets from the Gaza Strip (IDF)

Initial reports indicated that Iron Dome was launched to intercept one of the incoming rockets. However, the army later said no interception had taken place, and it was not clear whether an interceptor had been launched.

“Two rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israeli territory. The alert and warning systems operated as required,” the army said. “No interceptions were made by aerial defense systems. No damage or injuries were reported. There are no special instructions for the civilian home front.”

A video purportedly showing an Iron Dome launch, which made the rounds on social media, may have been an old clip from 2014.

People standing outside a bomb shelter after it was opened by the Tel Aviv municipality on March 14, 2019, after earlier two rockets from the Gaza Strip were fired toward central Israel. (Adam Shuldman/Flash90)

It wasn’t immediately clear which group in Gaza was responsible for the surprise rocket fire, which occurred on the eve of weekly Hamas-spurred Friday mass rallies and riots along the Strip’s border.

A Hamas official told the The Times of Israel that the terror group “has no interest in an escalation” with Israel. The official said he had “no idea” who fired rockets toward Tel Aviv.

The Hamas-run Interior Ministry called the rocket fire “outside the national consensus” and said it would exact measures against those behind it.

A senior Israeli official told Channel 13 news that the attack could have been carried out by another “organization attempting to sabotage efforts to achieve calm in recent days.”

A Hamas military site is seen empty after it was hit by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City, early Friday, Friday, March 15, 2019. Israeli warplanes attacked terror targets in the southern Gaza Strip early Friday in response to a rocket attack on the Israeli city of Tel Aviv (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Initial reports had indicated that the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terror group was responsible for the rocket fire. Hebrew-language media reported that Fajr missiles were launched, which PIJ has in its arsenal.

However, that terror group also denied that it was behind the fire. PIJ spokesman Daoud Shehab called the reports “baseless lies and claims.”

Hamas and PIJ told Egyptian security officials who were in the Strip to discuss a long-term truce that they were not responsible for the rockets, Al-Jazeera reported.

The Home Front Command did not give any special instructions to Israelis and said they could continue to carry on as normal. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai urged the public to remain calm, but added that public bomb shelters would be opened shortly.

All emergency response organizations in the Tel Aviv area increased their alertness following the incident.

Palestinian media reported that Hamas was evacuating military posts in Gaza in preparation for the Israeli response to the rockets. It also reported that the Egyptian delegation had left Gaza quickly after being instructed to evacuate by the IDF. There was no confirmation of the unsourced reports.

Israeli soldiers stand near a battery of the Iron Dome missile defense system deployed in Tel Aviv on January 24, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The missile launches come less than a month before the April 9 Knesset elections, and two months before Tel Aviv is due to host the Eurovision Song Contest, a major international event that is expected to draw many thousands of tourists from all over Europe.

Though it was the first time rockets were fired at Tel Aviv since Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, launches directed at residents of Israeli communities near Gaza have remain relatively frequent. A rocket fired from Gaza last October fell out at sea across from the greater Tel Aviv area.

Michael Bachner, Judah Ari Gross and agencies contributed to this report.

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