IDF threatens to intensify Gaza strikes if terror groups continue rocket attacks

As over 600 projectiles fired at Israel, army targets 320 sites across Strip and hints further assassinations in store; security cabinet gives green light for continued offensive

Smoke billows from a targeted neighbourhood in Gaza City during an Israeli airstrike on the Hamas-run Palestinian enclave on May 5, 2019.  (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP)
Smoke billows from a targeted neighbourhood in Gaza City during an Israeli airstrike on the Hamas-run Palestinian enclave on May 5, 2019. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP)

The head of the Israeli military’s Southern Command on Sunday evening said his troops were prepared to intensify their attacks on terror groups in the Gaza Strip, in response to the firing of over 600 rockets and mortar shells at Israeli territory since Saturday morning, which killed four Israeli civilians and injured several others.

Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi said more assassinations — like the one that killed an alleged terrorist financier earlier in the day — could be expected if fighting continues.

“In the past 36 hours, we have attacked a wide variety of targets. We attacked cells that were launching rockets, cells that were preparing to launch anti-tank guided missiles, cells that were preparing to snipe our troops. The number of operatives killed in the Gaza Strip will increase,” Halevi said in a filmed Hebrew statement.

Referring to the targeted killing earlier in the day of Hamed Hamdan al-Khodari, whom the Israel Defense Forces said was a Hamas member who funneled cash to terror groups in Gaza from Iran, the general warned that “these things can be expected to continue.”

On Sunday evening, the military released drone footage of the strike that killed al-Khodari.

The attack appeared to mark a threat by Israel to return to its once-regular practice of so-called targeted killings — assassinating terrorist leaders with pinpoint strikes — something it has largely forgone in recent years.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said 22 people had been killed in the Israeli strikes on Sunday, at least eight of them confirmed members of terrorist groups.

The Israeli military has disputed some of the Palestinians’ casualty figures — notably the inclusion of a pregnant woman and her niece whom the IDF said were killed in a failed terrorist rocket launch on Saturday night, not in one of its attacks — but did not present its own tally.

A picture taken on May 5, 2019 from the Israel-Gaza border shows a barrage of rockets being fired from the Hamas-run Palestinian enclave. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)

On Sunday night, the Israeli military said it bombed some 40 “terror targets” in the Gaza Strip in its latest round of airstrikes, bringing the IDF’s total number of raids up to 320 in the past two days. The military said it targeted “observation headquarters, underground bunkers, weapons caches, military facilities, launchpads, observation posts and more” in its most recent air raids.

The army said it targeted sites connected to both the Hamas terror group, which rules Gaza, and the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

“IDF strikes are continuing according to plan,” the military said.

The high-level security cabinet huddled for five hours on Sunday over the violence that killed four Israeli civilians in a single day, the deadliest casualty rate for Israel since the 2014 Gaza war.

Palestinians check damage to a multi-story building following Israeli retaliatory airstrikes in Gaza City, May 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Following the meeting, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a brief statement saying that the army has been instructed “to continue the strikes and prepare for them to continue.”

The statement added that the government’s “main consideration is the security of the state and its citizens.” This appeared to refer to claims that Israel might cave to the demands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in order to prevent the fight from continuing into Israel’s Memorial and Independence Days later this week and the international Eurovision Song Contest planned for May 14-18 in Tel Aviv.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said his group was prepared to accept a ceasefire if Israel halted its strikes on targets in the Gaza Strip.

Egyptian and UN officials were said to be holding talks with Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a truce.

For its part, the spokesman for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad said the terror group in the Gaza Strip was poised to escalate deadly violence against Israel to an all-out war.

“The resistance is on the verge of a new level in facing aggression; a level that could lead to open war,” PIJ spokesman Mosab al-Braim told the Hamas-linked al-Risala daily. “It will hurt the enemy like our people are hurting.”

Halevi said his command had been preparing for a war in Gaza for the past several months.

“We have held many exercises. The troops are in a good state of preparedness and are well-versed in the plans. We are putting together a fighting force that, depending on how things develop, can carry out different actions that will intensify the strikes on Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in Gaza,” he said.

The Golan Infantry Brigade was dispatched to the Gaza border as a reinforcement, in addition to the 7th Armored Brigade, which had been sent to the area earlier in the day, the army said.

In addition, the Paratroopers Brigade was put on standby and may also be called in to reinforce the Gaza Division, according to the IDF.

The army said that in addition to the terror cells targeted in its airstrikes, it had bombed hundreds of military sites in the coastal enclave throughout the past two days, including attack tunnels, rocket production facilities, training bases, observation posts, weapons caches in the homes of senior terrorist leaders and other pieces of “terrorist infrastructure.”

On Sunday evening, the IDF said its attack helicopters destroyed one of the buildings used by Hamas’s internal security service in the Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City.

While the Israeli military said it had no plans of easing up its attacks on terror targets in the Strip, an unnamed defense official told Channel 12 that the security establishment was increasingly concerned that Gaza terror groups would expand their rocket fire range to reach Tel Aviv and that Lebanon’s Hezbollah might join the fighting by launching an attack from Israel’s northern border.

The central city of Netanya, 30 minutes north of Tel Aviv, announced that it had opened its public bomb shelters; the town of Kfar Saba, 20 minutes northeast of Tel Aviv, issued the same directive shortly thereafter as a precaution amid the wave of rocket fire from Gaza. The decisions were made by the municipalities themselves and were not ordered by the IDF’s Home Front Command.

As of Sunday evening, four people in Israel were killed and at least 10 injured by shrapnel from rockets, missiles and mortar shells from the Gaza Strip, according to the Magen David Adom ambulance service.

Fifty-eight-year-old father of four Moshe Agadi was the first Israeli fatality from Gaza rockets since the 2014 Gaza war. He was declared dead after being rushed to Ashkelon’s Barzilai Medical Center with shrapnel wounds he sustained when the rocket hit outside his home in the city at around 2:30 a.m. Sunday.

A car bursts into flames after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod on May 5, 2019. (Flash90)

In a barrage aimed at the same southern city later in the day, a rocket directly hit a factory, killing a 22-year-old man and injuring two others. One of the men, 40, was seriously injured in the attack, with wounds throughout his body; the other sustained moderate injuries to his legs, medics said.

A short while later, a third man, Moshe Feder, 60, was fatally wounded when an anti-tank guided missile slammed into his car as he was driving along the Route 34 highway near the community of Kibbutz Erez, just north of the Gaza border. He sustained a serious shrapnel wound to the leg, causing significant blood loss. Feder was pronounced dead at Barzilai Medical Center after CPR efforts failed. The Hamas terror group claimed responsibility for the attack.

On Sunday evening, a fourth man was killed after being struck by rocket shrapnel while running for cover in the southern city of Ashdod, medics said. Pinchas Menachem Prezuazman, said to be in his early twenties, was survived by his wife and son.

In addition to the four killed, three Israelis were seriously wounded. Limited details were immediately available regarding those injured, though one was identified as a 25-year-old Thai national who was hit while working at an agricultural field in the south.

Moshe Agadi, 58, who was killed when a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip scored a direct hit on his home in Ashkelon in southern Israel early on May 5, 2019 (courtesy)

At least two others were moderately wounded and two were lightly wounded.

Twelve people were also lightly injured running to bomb shelters. In addition, 93 more received medical treatment after suffering anxiety attacks caused by the rocket strikes.

Over 600 rockets and mortar shells were fired from Gaza since Saturday. Approximately 400 of them struck empty fields and more than 150 were shot down by the Iron Dome missile defense system, which the IDF said had a 86 percent interception rate overall.

Over 35 rockets and mortar shells exploded in populated areas, causing injuries and damage to buildings, roads and infrastructure.

In a briefing to reporters, IDF Spokesman Jonathan Conricus said the army blamed the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad for starting the latest round of violence by shooting at IDF soldiers on Friday afternoon, moderately injuring an officer and lightly injuring another soldier. However, Conricus clarified that Israel still holds Hamas responsible as the sovereign power in Gaza.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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