Israeli jets carried out airstrikes in the Gaza Strip overnight Saturday-Sunday in response to rocket fire from the restive Palestinian enclave, the army said.
The raids in central Gaza targeted Hamas installations, according to the Israel Defense Forces. The IDF said the strikes undermined the terror organization’s military capabilities and said Israeli forces remained “on high alert for various scenarios,” without elaborating.
There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries in the retaliatory strikes.
Palestinian terrorists fired at least two rockets at southern Israel on Saturday night, apparently hitting open fields and causing no injuries, despite recent reports from both sides of the border of a ceasefire agreement, the military said.
The rockets appeared to strike outside the community of Kibbutz Kissufim, just east of the Gaza border, in the Eshkol region. Residents of the area reported hearing the sound of an explosion.
Security forces began searching the area for the impact sites, an Eshkol spokesperson said.
The army later announced that it had cancelled the revocation of some 500 permits allowing businessmen out of Gaza, an increase on the fishing zone, and an agreement to allow cement to be imported into the Strip.
The retaliatory sanctions that Israel put in place against Palestinians in the Strip were to be eased in exchange for the cessation of attacks, an Israeli defense official told reporters on Thursday.
The official had said that Hamas “sent messages to Israel that they’d decided unilaterally to stop launching balloons and rocket fire at Israel.”
Saturday’s attack came less than an hour after Defense Minister Naftali Bennett boasted in an interview on Channel 12 news that rocket fire from the Gaza Strip had decreased dramatically under his four-month tenure as defense minister, though it was not immediately clear how he reached this claim.
“From the three months before to the three months after I entered [the position of defense minister], the number of rockets dropped by 80 percent, and the riots on the border stopped completely,” Bennett said.
It was unclear how Bennett calculated this 80 percent drop, as just his first two days as defense minister saw a massive battle with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in Gaza in which hundreds of rockets were fired at Israel, compared to the 13 rockets and mortar shells fired at Israel in the three months prior to his entering the position, according to statistics from the Shin Bet security service.
The defense minister also made a somewhat dubious claim about the Israel Defense Forces’ response to the launching of balloon-borne explosive devices from the Gaza Strip into Israel.
“We are blowing up Hamas bases because of balloon launches, something we never did before,” Bennett said. The IDF did, in fact, conduct airstrikes on Hamas positions in response to these airborne explosives attacks multiple times over the years under previous defense ministers.
Saturday’s rocket fire came amid reports of an emerging ceasefire between Israel and terror groups in the Strip, following weeks of tensions and low-level clashes around the border, with regular rocket attacks and the daily launching of balloon-borne explosive devices into the country’s south.
A Hamas official told a Lebanese newspaper on Saturday that the terror group had in fact decided to reduce the number of incendiary balloons launched toward Israel, not stop them entirely.
The Lebanese pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar newspaper, citing an unnamed Hamas official, said that the number of launches would be reduced only after Israel met the group’s demands.
Indeed, bunches of balloons carrying suspected explosive devices from the Gaza Strip landed in Israel throughout the day on Friday and Saturday. Police sappers were called to the scenes. Nobody was hurt in any of the incidents.
Thursday saw a number of balloon-borne incendiary devices explode over Israeli communities near the Gaza border, including one that detonated above a school.
The potential breakthrough between Israel and the terror group came after the Egyptian military and the United Nations intervened last week, sending in delegations on Monday and Wednesday, respectively, according to Palestinian reports.
Al-Akhbar, citing unnamed sources in Palestinian terror groups, reported on Tuesday that the Egyptian delegation had conveyed a message from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Hamas in which he demanded “a return to calm.”
The sources told the daily that Netanyahu’s message, which the Egyptian delegation received from Israeli security officials in Tel Aviv on Sunday, included a threat that Israel would “deliver a major blow to Hamas with American and international cover” if calm is not restored.
This week, Israeli politicians publicly threatened a harsh military response if attacks from the Gaza Strip continued.
“I want to make this clear: We won’t accept any aggression from Gaza. Just a few weeks ago, we took out the top commander of Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and I suggest that Islamic Jihad and Hamas refresh their memories,” Netanyahu said, at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on Sunday.
“I won’t lay out in detail all our actions and plans in the media, but we’re prepared for crushing action against the terror groups in Gaza. Our actions are powerful, and they’re not finished yet, to put it mildly,” he said.
Bennett similarly issued a warning to Hamas leaders in Gaza last Sunday, warning that Israel would take “lethal action against them” if their “irresponsible behavior” didn’t cease.
No Israelis have been injured directly by the latest round of rocket and airborne explosives. In response to the attacks, the Israel Defense Forces conducted strikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, which have not injured Palestinians. However, last month, a group of three Palestinians armed with explosives crossed the security fence into southern Israel from Gaza and, once surrounded, attacked a group of Israeli soldiers, who returned fire, killing the trio.
Israeli defense officials believe that the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group was trying to increase pressure on Israel in a bid to extract greater concessions in the ceasefire negotiations.
Fears have also mounted in recent weeks of an escalation of violence in Gaza and the West Bank following the release last month of a US peace plan that is seen as heavily favoring Israel and which Palestinian leaders have rejected.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.