Israeli aircraft carried out a series of strikes against targets in the Gaza Strip early Tuesday as Palestinian terrorists in Gaza appeared to temporarily pause the rocket fire toward Israel.
Rockets were fired toward Israel just before midnight Monday, with no further attacks until dawn Tuesday, when alarms sounded in communities near Gaza and in the town of Netivot.
There were no immediate reports of injuries.
The six-hour break in rocket strikes was the longest since the start of hostilities nine days ago, possibly indicating that moves toward a ceasefire were bearing fruit.
Hamas claimed responsibility for the barrage on Netivot, saying it was in response to “Zionist aggression,” an apparent reference to the overnight strikes.
Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said the military did not know the reason behind the temporary halt in rocket fire, but was continuing with its campaign against Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups.
Palestinian sources reported that the IDF carried out several waves of strikes against targets across the Strip, including one that hit dozens of targets. Video and pictures showed a series of massive explosions and fireballs lighting up the night sky.
It’s 4:00 AM in #Gaza after a short calm during Monday night, warplanes launch over 30 air strikes in western part of #Gaza City and the northern Gaza Strip, targeting #Hamas security sites, infrastructure and main roads, credit Masdr news agency pic.twitter.com/jJxvENRPPT
— Rushdi Abualouf (@Rushdibbc) May 18, 2021
According to Zilberman, the large overnight airstrike was the fourth in a series of bombardments on Hamas’s underground tunnel network, which the military refers to as “the metro.”
The attack destroyed some 15 kilometers (9 miles) of Hamas underground tunnels in Gaza City and Khan Younis, according to Zilberman. Upwards of 100 kilometers (62 miles) of tunnels had already been bombed in the previous three raids.
The airstrike was conducted with some 60 planes, dropping over 100 bombs on some 65 targets over the course of roughly 30 minutes beginning at 3:45 a.m. Tuesday, according to the spokesman.
Zilberman said the purpose of this strike, along with the previous three, was to convince Hamas and its operatives that its underground infrastructure was no longer safe and cannot be trusted.
The spokesman said the IDF also targeted a number of underground multi-barreled rocket launchers, destroying at least 10 of them, including six that were aimed at the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. In total, 65 of these launchpads capable of firing multiple rockets at a time have been bombed by the IDF since the outbreak of fighting last Monday, but the military believes that Hamas and other terror groups have many more still capable of firing projectiles toward Israel, including at long ranges.
Palestinian media also said that the IDF hit Hamas naval attack boats on the Gaza shore early Tuesday.
Earlier Monday, the IDF said it had foiled an attempt by Hamas to attack Israeli naval assets with an autonomous submarine from northern Gaza, adding that it destroyed the device shortly after launch and struck the team that operated it.
In total, Zilberman said, the military believed it has killed over 150 terrorist operatives as of Monday night, the majority from Hamas, during the fighting in the Gaza Strip.
According to Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry, over 200 Palestinians have been killed so far in the nine days of the conflict, including more than 50 minors and three dozen women. It was not immediately clear if this ministry tally includes all of those killed or if there were Hamas operatives not included in the count.
According to Zilberman, more than 120 of those killed were members of Hamas and over 25 were members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad as of Monday night. Additional terrorist operatives were likely killed overnight but Zilberman on Tuesday morning said he had yet to receive updated assessments regarding the exact number.
Meanwhile, the Qatari Red Crescent said an airstrike damaged its offices in Gaza Monday, while the Hamas-run health ministry said one of its buildings and a clinic housing the enclave’s only Covid-19 laboratory was hit.
The strikes came after US President Joe Biden spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the bloodshed in Israel and Gaza, and “expressed his support for a ceasefire.”
It was the third call the two leaders have had since the violence in Gaza erupted and came hours after Netanyahu said he had directed the IDF to continue striking terror targets in Gaza.
Biden “reiterated his firm support for Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks,” the White House said, adding that they “discussed progress in Israel’s military operations against Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza.”
Biden also called on Netanyahu to “make every effort to ensure the protection of innocent civilians,” the statement said.
The president updated Netanyahu on US engagement with Egypt and other partners to broker a ceasefire. He also welcomed the Israeli government’s “efforts to address inter-communal violence and to bring calm to Jerusalem,” the White House said.
The two leaders agreed that they and their teams would remain in close touch.
There was no immediate comment on the call from Netanyahu’s office.
Biden’s decision to express support for, but not explicitly demand, a ceasefire was intentional, an administration official familiar with the call said
While Biden and top aides are concerned about the mounting bloodshed and loss of innocent life, the decision not to demand an immediate halt to hostilities reflects White House determination to support Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas, the official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the private deliberations.
Earlier Netanyahu directed the IDF to push ahead with Operation Guardian of the Wall.
“We will continue to act as necessary to restore peace and security to all residents of Israel,” he added.
However, a diplomatic source familiar with Egypt’s efforts to broker a ceasefire told The Times of Israel, “we’re close” and that it could be reached in “two days maximum.”
Channel 12 reported that Egypt told Hamas on Monday evening that if it wants a ceasefire, it needs to stop firing at Israel. The network speculated that this may be the reason why Hamas did not make good on its promise to fire at Tel Aviv in the evening.
Also, Monday, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi told the heads of local governments around the Gaza Strip that the fighting in the enclave will continue for at least the next two days, but will continue “as long as it must.”
“Hamas made a mistake when it conducted that launch eight days ago toward Jerusalem. They didn’t think what happened would happen,” Kohavi said.
“Hamas was surprised by our power and techniques and our achievements. They are being struck very hard. The operation will continue as long as it must,” he said.
On Monday, US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli-Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr was in Ramallah meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other officials.
Israel has said it intends to press on for now with its attacks against Hamas, the terrorist group that rules Gaza. Blinken signaled Monday that the US was still not joining calls for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
“We have made clear that we are prepared to lend our support and good offices to the parties should they seek a ceasefire,” Blinken said during a visit to Copenhagen.
“Any diplomatic initiative that advances that prospect is something that we’ll support,” he said. “And we are again willing and ready to do that. But ultimately it is up to the parties to make clear that they want to pursue a ceasefire.”
The comments contrasted somewhat with ones the top US diplomat made Sunday when he tweeted that “all parties need to deescalate tensions – the violence must end immediately.”
For the third time in a week, the US blocked a joint statement from the UN Security Council calling for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, two diplomats involved in the matter said Sunday.
The draft statement made no explicit mention of Hamas rocket fire in Gaza.
The European Union said Monday it will redouble its efforts to end the surge in violence and seek progress during a special meeting of its foreign ministers on Tuesday.
According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, some 200 Palestinians have died since the beginning of the fighting, 59 of them children. Israel has said it does not target civilians, and that many of the dead were terrorists or killed by errant Hamas rockets.
On Sunday, 42 Palestinians were reported killed in the deadliest single strike since the violence erupted a week ago. The IDF said it had targeted Hamas infrastructure under the homes of Palestinian civilians.
Ten people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl, have been killed in the rocket fire, and hundreds have been injured.
Jacob Magid and Agencies contributed to this report