Terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip launched over 174 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel throughout Saturday, the majority of them exploding in open fields, but with some landing inside Israeli communities, injuring three people and damaging buildings, officials said.
In response, the Israel Defense Forces launched its largest bombing campaign against Hamas targets in the Strip since the 2014 Gaza war, hitting dozens of targets, including two border-crossing attack tunnels and an urban combat training facility, the military said.
According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, two Palestinian teenagers were killed in the Israeli strikes — in a building over a Hamas tunnel — and 25 others were injured by shrapnel.
From 1:30 a.m., over 174 rockets and mortar shells were fired at southern Israel from Gaza. The majority of them, well over 100, landed in open fields. Over 30 of them were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. A number landed within the fences of communities in southern Israel.
The three Israelis were wounded when rockets hit a home and a synagogue in the border town of Sderot. They were evacuated to the hospital in moderate condition.
A number of other projectiles that landed inside communities in the Eshkol region of southern Israel caused light damage to buildings and infrastructure. In some communities, the mortar shells knocked down power lines, causing temporary outages, a spokesperson for the regional council said.
“A team from the regional council and the electric company fixed the damage immediately, under continued mortar fire,” the Eshkol region spokesperson said.
In light of the flare-up, Israeli authorities called for a number of precautionary measures for residents of, and visitors to, southern Israel.
Though day camps were allowed to be held as normal on Sunday, all field trips to the Hof Ashkelon, Eshkol, Sha’ar Hanegev, and Sdot Negev regions were cancelled, the Education Ministry announced.
The Zikim beach, which lies just north of the Gaza Strip, was closed to bathers, the army said.
In addition, people were forbidden from holding large gatherings in the areas closest to the Gaza border.
In open fields, no more than 100 people could be together at the same time. In closed areas inside communities, gatherings had to be kept smaller than 500 people, local government officials said.
However, farmers were allowed to work their fields as usual.
In response to the regular rocket and mortar attacks throughout the day, the Israeli military conducted dozens of airstrikes against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.
In addition to the two tunnels and urban combat training center, under which an additional tunnel was found, the IDF targeted a Hamas battalion command center in the Gazan city of Beit Lahiya, as well as “dozens of terror targets inside military compounds,” in multiple waves of bombings, the army said.
The large Beit Lahiya facility included “urban warfare training facilities, weapon storage warehouse, training compounds, command centers, offices, and more,” the army said.
“In addition, a weapons manufacturing site and storage facilities housing various types of weapons, including Hamas’ naval capabilities, were struck,” it said.
The air force also attacked a Palestinian terrorist cell launching mortar shells.
The IDF spokesman said the aim of the operation was to “restore a sense of security” and that the military would “respond as necessary” to a wide range of scenarios.
Palestinians reported that the two teens were killed when the air force bombed the multi-story Hamas training complex in the Gaza Strip’s Shati refugee camp, completely destroying the building and exposing a tunnel complex underneath.
The Hamas-run health ministry identified the dead as 15-year-old Amir al-Nimra and 16-year-old Louay Kahil.
The Israeli military held Hamas, which rules Gaza, as responsible for Saturday’s flare-up.
“The Hamas terror group is responsible for everything that goes on in and from the Gaza Strip and it will bear the responsibility for the situation,” the IDF said.
The military threatened that it was prepared to take more forceful action “based on situational assessments and operational need.”
On Saturday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that Israel would step up its strikes on Gaza until the Palestinian terror groups halt all violence coming out of the coastal enclave.
“The IDF hit Hamas with the harshest blow since Operation Protective Edge and we will intensify our reaction as much as necessary,” Netanyahu said Saturday evening, after the IDF attacked dozens of targets in the Strip on Saturday, in the most extensive daytime assault since the 2014 conflict.
“If Hamas does not understand the message today, it will understand tomorrow,” Netanyahu said in a video statement.
The Walla news site quoted a senior defense official as saying that Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman had been in talks during the day with Nikolay Mladenov, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process.
A spokesperson for Mladenov confirmed that he’d held talks with several Israeli and Egyptian officials in an attempt to restore calm to the region.
According to Walla, Liberman told Mladenov that Israel’s main demand was the halt of the fire kites and balloons.
Over the last few months Palestinians in Gaza have sent over thousands of kites and balloons attached to incendiary devices that have set hundreds of fires in farm lands and nature reserves along the border with Gaza, destroying tens of thousands of acres.
Earlier in the day the IDF said it had three main aims: Stopping the fire kites, the rocket fire, and the weekly protests along the Gaza border.
The Security Cabinet was to convene for an emergency meeting Sunday afternoon to deal with the escalating violence in Gaza.
Israeli ministers were updated on the developments by phone overnight Friday-Saturday, as residents of Israeli communities near Gaza spent the night in bomb shelters.
Israel’s political leadership was considering a range of possibilities for trying to halt the rocket fire, including targeted assassinations of Hamas terror chiefs, the use of ground forces, and a ceasefire mediated by Egypt and/or others, but no decision had been made as of Saturday late afternoon, Hadashot TV news reported.
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot also met with senior commanders in the south to review the situation.
Egyptian sources said Cairo was working to prevent a further escalation and towards mediating a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian terror groups, the Walla news site reported.
According to unconfirmed reports in Gaza, by late afternoon Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials had ordered their operatives to halt all rocket fire. Nevertheless, the fire continued unabated.
After midnight Friday-Saturday, the Israel Defense Forces struck an attack tunnel and Hamas training bases in Gaza in response to the moderate wounding of an IDF officer by a hand-grenade thrown during a border riot on Friday.
In response, Palestinians fired over a dozen projectiles into Israel in the predawn hours of Saturday morning, and kept up the attacks throughout the day, firing over 160 more rockets and mortar shells. Residents of Israeli border communities spent the night in bomb shelters and were cautioned to remain close to the shelters during the day.
Hamas on Saturday said the barrage of rockets and mortar shells into Israeli territory overnight was fired by the “resistance” to “stop Israeli escalation.”
The spokesman for the terrorist group, Fawzi Barhoum, also said the projectiles were an “immediate response” that was meant to “deliver the message” to Israel.
The army said it held Hamas responsible for all violence emanating from Gaza, which the terror group has ruled since 2007.