A senior army official warned Thursday morning that Israel was nearing a full-blown military confrontation in the Gaza Strip after hundreds of rockets were launched overnight by Palestinian terror groups, adding that the government could begin evacuating communities near the coastal enclave in preparation.
“We are rapidly nearing a confrontation,” the IDF senior officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Hamas is making serious mistakes, and we may have to make it clear after four years that this path doesn’t yield any results for it and isn’t worth it.”
Authorities said over 150 rockets and mortar shells were launched at Israeli communities since Wednesday evening. The barrages by the Hamas terror group continued throughout the night and into Thursday.
According to IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, at least seven people in total were injured in southern Israel by the Gaza rocket attacks, including a woman who was seriously injured when a projectile struck her home in the Eshkol region of southern Israel.
In response to the attacks, the Israeli army said, it struck over 140 Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip overnight.
The military said its raids targeted training compounds as well as weapons-manufacturing facilities and storage warehouses. The air force also targeted sites from which rockets were being launched, including a car that the army said was being used by a cell of terrorists. One Hamas operative was reportedly killed in the airstrike. Unconfirmed reports claimed he was the relative of a senior Hamas commander.
Hamas said a pregnant woman and her infant daughter were killed in another strike.
The Hamas-run health ministry named the woman as Aynas Abu Khamash, 23, and her daughter, 18-months-old, as Bayan. According to Ashraf al-Qidra, a spokesman for the ministry, they were killed in an Israeli strike on the central Gaza Strip early Thursday morning. Mohammed Abu Khamash, Aynas’s husband, was seriously injured in the strike, he said.
Conricus said he could not comment on the specific case of the Abu Khamash family, but stressed that the army targeted “only military sites” in its raids.
Arab 48, an Arab-Israeli news site, which spoke with members of the Abu Khamash family, said the family’s home is located in rural Gaza and four kilometers from the border fence between the Strip and Israel. There are a number of military sites which belong to armed groups in Gaza near the border. The report did not say if the Abu Khamash home was located adjacent to a military site.
At least six other Palestinians were injured as a result of the IDF strikes, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
“We have more capabilities in our arsenal,” the anonymous senior officer threatened. “We are ready to continue attacking, attacking and attacking. Our strikes deeply affect Hamas. It would be better off returning to the understandings reached after Operation Protective Edge [in 2014].”
The military said a large number of additional forces were being deployed to the Gaza area. However, no additional reservist units have been called up as of Thursday morning, Conricus said.
According to the spokesman, the military was ready to evacuate communities in southern Israel if war breaks out.
“This is something that we are prepared to do, but this is not something that is in process or that we are eager to do,” Conricus said.
The woman who was seriously injured in Israel was a 30-year-old foreign worker from Thailand. She suffered injuries to her abdomen and limbs. Another person was lightly injured in the same barrage, and several were treated for shock.
Most of the rockets fired from Gaza hit open areas. The Iron Dome defense system — which targets only missiles projected to strike communities — destroyed 25 of the rockets.
Conricus said the system was operating as well as the military had expected, but stressed that it could not provide perfect, “hermetic” protection.
Indeed, several hit homes and factories in Israeli communities, causing damage. One barrage that slammed into the city of Sderot Wednesday evening injured at least three Israelis. Thirteen others were treated for panic attacks, including two pregnant women who went into premature labor.
The current round of violence “is definitely not over,” Conricus said.
“We are in the midst of a new round, the end of which I cannot see yet,” the anonymous official added. “We struck a range of targets, including tunnel shafts and many military compounds belonging to Hamas. What we wanted to destroy was done very well.
“Meanwhile, there are talks on calming the situation down and reaching an agreement. This morning, I understand, Hamas is distancing itself from an agreement, and nearing a conflict in which it will suffer a hard blow. Its two million hostages will be the ones suffering.”
Following the attacks from Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman met overnight with senior officers from the IDF and other security services at the military’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, to discuss the situation and decide on a course of action.
The security cabinet was also due to hold a special session on Thursday afternoon regarding the ongoing violence.
Sirens sounded in Israeli communities throughout the night, and thousands of families slept in bomb shelters and protected spaces.
Overnight six rockets exploded in Sderot, including two that hit homes and one that hit a factory. Another hit a house in the Hof Asheklon regional council. In all cases the rockets caused damage but no casualties. In addition, a rocket hit a factory in the Sha’ar Hanegev region, breaking through the roof and damaging equipment inside, a spokesperson for the region said. The factory was empty of people at the time of the rocket attack.
Residents of southern Israel were told to remain close to bomb shelters in case of additional rockets or mortar shells from Gaza.
Hamas claimed responsibility for the rocket attacks, saying it was avenging the deaths of two operatives killed in an Israeli strike the day before — a strike that came in response to what the IDF initially identified as a shooting attack on its forces, but which was apparently an internal Hamas exercise.
The United Nations condemned the Hamas rocket fire.
“I am deeply alarmed by the recent escalation of violence between Gaza and Israel, and particularly by today’s multiple rockets fired towards communities in southern Israel,” UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov said in a statement.
He called on all sides to step “back from the brink” and restore calm.
US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt also condemned Hamas in a tweet. “Another night of terror & families huddling in fear as Israel defends itself,” he said.
“This is the Hamas regime’s choice. Hamas is subjecting people to the terrifying conditions of war again.”
The recent rocket fire represented a major uptick in tensions along the border, amid intensive talks between Israel and Hamas for a long-term ceasefire.
Such an agreement is meant to end not only rocket launches and shootings from Gaza but also the regular incendiary kite and balloon attacks from the Palestinian enclave that have burned large swaths of land in southern Israel and caused millions of shekels of damage.
Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.