IDF pounds Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza after rockets fired at south
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Gaza-ruling Hamas so far spared from Israeli counterattacks

IDF pounds Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza after rockets fired at south

Military says fighter jets, attack helicopters bombed terror group’s facility in Khan Younis, elsewhere in the Strip, following afternoon barrages that struck southern Israel

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

The Israel Defense Forces launched a series of airstrikes against Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets in the Gaza Strip on Monday, after the terror group fired at least 14 rockets at southern Israel earlier in the day, the military said.

The IDF said it struck an Islamic Jihad military base in the Gazan city of Khan Younis, along with other facilities controlled by the terror group in the Strip.

Shortly after the military completed its airstrikes in Gaza, terrorists in the Strip fired one rocket toward the city of Ashkelon, just north of the Palestinian enclave, sending thousands of people rushing to bomb shelters, the military said.

It appeared as though the rocket landed in the sea off the coast of the city, according to video footage and photographs of the attack. There were no reports of injuries or damage.

The military said the Khan Younis base, which featured underground infrastructure, was used by the Islamic Jihad as both a training center and a storage depot for weaponry.

The retaliatory strikes were conducted by fighter jets and attack helicopters in response to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip aimed at southern Israel earlier in the day, the IDF said.

Photographs and video footage of the IDF’s rare daytime strikes showed massive fireballs going into the air following the strikes, likely indicating secondary blasts from explosives being stored on the base.

“The IDF will respond aggressively to the terrorist activities of the Islamic Jihad, which threaten the citizens of Israel and harms its sovereignty,” the military said in a statement.

A police sapper removes pieces of a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip that struck a playground in the town of Sderot on February 24, 2020. (Israel Police)

In announcing the fresh airstrikes in Gaza on Monday, the IDF notably mentioned only Islamic Jihad, not 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 lately begun to distinguish between Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which Israel believes is responsible for the majority of the violence along the Gaza border in recent months.

Beginning at noon Monday, Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip fired at least 14 rockets at southern Israel, 12 of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, the IDF said.

Smoke trails are left in the sky after Palestinian terrorists fire a rocket at southern Israel from the Gaza Strip on February 24, 2020. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Islamic Jihad took responsibility for the attacks.

One rocket struck an empty playground in the town of Sderot on Monday, causing damage but no injuries, police said. Another rocket appeared to strike an open field outside the community of Nir Am in the Sha’ar Hanegev region, according to local government.

Shrapnel from one of the Iron Dome interceptions also shattered a car windshield in the community of Nir Am, a Sha’ar Hanegev spokesperson said.

The IDF’s high interception rate indicated an impressive performance by the Iron Dome missile defense system and its operators, as well as a high degree of accuracy by terror groups in the Strip. In general, the Iron Dome is only activated when an incoming projectile is heading toward a populated area, rather than an open field where it is unlikely to cause injury or damage.

Damage caused to a car in the community of Nir Am in southern Israel by shrapnel from the interception of a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip on February 24, 2020. (Nir Am security)

There were no physical injuries caused by the rockets. Medics treated one woman who suffered an anxiety attack during the barrage on Monday.

The attacks triggered sirens in the town of Sderot, in the Sha’ar Hanegev region, and in the community of Netiv Ha’asara, sending thousands of residents rushing to bomb shelters.

Videos shared on social media appeared to show multiple launches of the Iron Dome missile defense system over Sderot.

The attack came after Palestinian and Israeli officials exchanged threats of renewed violence throughout Monday morning.

On Sunday evening, the Islamic Jihad and other terror groups fired some 30 rockets at Israel on Sunday evening, approximately half of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. The rest landed in open fields. Some shrapnel caused light property damage, but no injuries were reported.

The IDF retaliated with airstrikes on Islamic Jihad facilities in both Syria and Gaza. Two members of the terror group were killed in the airstrikes outside Damascus along with four other pro-Iranian fighters, according to a Britain-based Syrian war monitor. A number of Islamic Jihad operatives were also injured by an IDF airstrike in Gaza as they prepared to launch rockets at Israel, the military said.

Abu Hamza, a spokesperson for the Al-Quds Brigade, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad military wing, said Monday that Israel’s strikes on Damascus “will not pass fleetingly,” adding: “The fight is not over.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and senior officials from Israel’s security services meet to discuss growing tensions with terror groups in the Gaza Strip at the military’s Tel Aviv headquarters on February 23, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Both Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened Monday that Israel could begin a major operation to stem rocket fire and other attacks on Israeli communities near the Gaza border, despite elections a week away.

“We are preparing a plan to fundamentally change the situation in the Gaza Strip,” Bennett told a conference in Jerusalem. “I really understand the situation of the people of the south. They deserve peace and security.”

Netanyahu told Radio Jerusalem that he “will not compromise Israel’s security for political reasons.”

“War is a last resort, but there may be no escape from it. We’ve prepared a radically different campaign,” Netanyahu said.

“If Israel is in the position of entering a large-scale military operation, we will have to deal a bigger blow than [operations] Cast Lead, Pillar of Defense and Protective Edge. It could very well be that we may have to carry out — I don’t really want to say it, but — ‘the mother of all operations.'”

Israeli military surveillance footage of two alleged Palestinian Islamic Jihad members planting what appears to be a bomb along the Gaza border on February 23, 2020. (Screen capture: Israel Defense Forces)

Early Monday, the IDF Home Front Command issued a series of precautionary directives for southern Israel in case of renewed fighting throughout the day, closing schools, banning large outdoor gatherings, blocking roads and halting train service.

Sunday’s 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.

The retrieval of the corpse was apparently part of Bennett’s announced 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 smoke trail of a rocket, fired by Palestinian terrorists, flying over the Gaza Strip, on February 23, 2020. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

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.

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

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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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