IDF threatens to step up Gaza attacks, but won’t call up reservists for now

Army says Hamas and Islamic Jihad have fired over 400 rockets, mortar shells at Israel, with some 20,000 more in their arsenals; military bombs ‘key assets’ in Strip

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

A man stands inside a house that was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, on November 13, 2018 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
A man stands inside a house that was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, on November 13, 2018 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The Israeli military threatened on Tuesday to escalate its bombing raids in Gaza, which the army said have already destroyed more than 150 military targets in the coastal enclave, after Palestinian terrorists in the Strip fired some 400 rockets and mortar shells at Israeli cities and towns along the border since Monday afternoon, killing at least one person and wounding dozens more.

“There is ample room for additional targets,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israel Defense Forces spokesperson. “We have signaled to Hamas over the course of this night that we have the intelligence and ability to strike a variety of military targets that belong to Hamas.”

Spokespeople for the armed wing of Hamas, the terror group that rules the Strip, threatened to start shooting rockets deeper into Israeli territory if fighting continued, calling recent barrages on the city of Ashkelon a “warning.”

“Approximately one million Zionists will be within the range of our missiles if the Zionist enemy’s decision is to continue its aggression,” a Hamas spokesman said.

Israeli soldiers duck behind their vehicle as they pulled over to the side of the road during a Code Red alert warning of incoming rockets from Gaza, in southern Israel, on November 12, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Another spokesman said Tuesday morning that if Israel continues its bombardments of Gaza, the cities of “Ashdod and Beersheba are next in line,” while a spokesperson for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group threatened to attack Tel Aviv.

On Tuesday, Israel also stopped cooperating with the Egyptian intelligence officials and United Nations Special Envoy to the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov, who have been working to broker a ceasefire between the two sides, in a clear signal that Jerusalem was prepared to continue pummeling the Strip if the rocket and mortar attacks persisted.

Israel’s security cabinet convened in the morning at the Defense Ministry’s Tel Aviv headquarters. The discussion was expected to last several hours, at the end of which the ministers would decide how to proceed.

Missiles from the Iron Dome air defense system in the south of Israel destroy incoming missiles above Ashkelon fired from the Gaza Strip on November 13, 2018. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP)

The IDF’s threats to Hamas came as rocket and mortar attacks from the Gaza Strip entered their second day, forcing tens of thousands of Israelis in the south to stay close to bomb shelters and while most schools, businesses and government offices remained closed.

The massive barrage of rocket and mortar shells, which began Monday afternoon and persisted throughout the night and into Tuesday morning, appeared to be the largest-ever attack in a 24-hour period from the Gaza Strip, with more than twice the number of projectiles fired than on any single day of the bloody 2014 war.

In response to the “relentless rocket fire” from Gaza, the Israeli military launched a series of ground, air and naval strikes at over 150 targets in the Strip connected to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, including “key strategic assets,” according to Conricus.

Among those assets were the Hamas-controlled Al-Aqsa television station, which Israel says was used to direct and encourage terrorist activities, and Hamas’s internal security headquarters.

As rocket attacks continued throughout the day on Monday night and Tuesday, the Israeli army sent reinforcements to the south in the form of additional infantry troops, tanks and Iron Dome batteries.

The military had yet to call up significant numbers of reservists as of Tuesday morning, but IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis told the Radio Darom station that it may yet do so if the need arises. Small numbers of reserve personnel, mostly from aerial defense units, have been brought into army service, Conricus told reporters by phone.

According to the IDF, more than 400 rockets and mortars have been lobbed at southern Israel since Monday afternoon, which began shortly after 4:30 p.m. when Palestinian terrorists fired a Kornet anti-tank guided missile at a bus near the border, severely injuring an Israeli soldier.

A picture taken on November 12, 2018 shows a bus set ablaze after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, at the Israel-Gaza border near the kibbutz of Kfar Aza, on November 12, 2018. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

The anti-tank missile attack occurred less than a day after an IDF special operations officer was killed in an operation in Gaza gone awry that also killed seven Palestinian gunmen. Following the clashes, Hamas said “the blood of our righteous martyrs will not be wasted.”

Most of the projectiles launched from the Strip have been targeting the “Gaza envelope,” the Israeli communities located within a few kilometers of the coastal enclave, the army said.

Conricus warned that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad — the two largest terror groups in Gaza — have “in excess of 20,000 rockets and mortar shells of different calibers and ranges” in their arsenals in Gaza, almost twice the number that Israel assessed they had in the 2014 war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge.

“Unfortunately they are not near the end of their capabilities,” he said.

According to the military, over 100 of the incoming projectiles were intercepted by the Iron Dome air defense system. Most of the rest landed in open fields outside of Israeli communities. Dozens exploded inside cities and towns throughout southern Israel, several of them directly hitting homes and apartment buildings in Ashkelon, Netivot and Sderot.

One man was killed in one of those direct hits in Ashkelon. He was later identified as a 48-year-old Palestinian man from Hebron, Mahmoud Abu Asbah, who was living in Israel with a legal work permit.

According to medical officials, 27 other people in were injured in attacks, including the soldier hit in the anti-tank missile attack and two women wounded in direct hits on apartment buildings in Ashkelon. A man in his 40s was also moderately wounded by shrapnel, medics said.

“The Iron Dome so far has been phenomenal, but even the Iron Dome is not hermetic and we cannot expect it to intercept everything, especially when it’s dealing with this amount of rockets,” Conricus said.

A house hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, November 13, 2018 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“It is unfortunate that of the dozens of rockets fired at Ashkelon one was able to get through our defenses and hit a building in a populated area,” he added, when asked about the rocket attack that killed the Palestinian man.

In Gaza, six Palestinians — at least three of them later claimed by terrorist groups as members — were reportedly killed in the IDF’s raids on Monday and Tuesday, apparently in airstrikes on rocket-launching cells.

No Hamas members have yet to be identified among the dead in Gaza.

According to Conricus, that is because Hamas leadership and fighters have mostly stayed underground throughout the fighting, launching their rockets with timers and other remote-controlled devices in order to avoid being hit by Israeli airstrikes.

“It’s not a secret — they’re in hiding,” he said. “They fire rockets from within the Gaza civilian population at our civilian population, and they do so while hiding beneath their civilian population.”

Conricus said the IDF was using a variety of measures to avoid Palestinian civilian casualties, including phone calls to buildings about to be destroyed and the so-called “knock on the roof” technique in which non-explosive ordnance is dropped on a building as a warning before an actual missile strike takes place.

A picture taken on November 12, 2018 shows a ball of fire above the building housing the Hamas-run television station al-Aqsa TV in Gaza City during an Israeli air strike. ( Bashar TALEB / AFP)

“Hamas is forcing its violence and bringing its destruction on the Gaza Strip with its actions,” Conricus said. “This is in spite of long term efforts that Israel and the IDF have done to stabilize and improve the situation [in Gaza].”

In recent weeks, Egyptian and UN mediators had appeared to be making progress in brokering informal understandings aimed at quieting the situation.

Last week, Israel allowed Qatar to deliver $15 million to Gaza to allow cash-strapped Hamas to pay the salaries of thousands of government workers. At the same time, Hamas has lowered the intensity of the border protests in recent weeks.

Israeli security forces and firefighters gather near a building set ablaze after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in the southern town of Sderot on November 12, 2018. (Photo by Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

The fighting on Monday and Tuesday cast doubt over understandings previously brokered by Egypt and UN officials to reduce tensions. Just a day earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had defended those understandings, saying he was doing everything possible to avoid another “unnecessary war.”

The United Nations on Monday said it was working with Egypt to broker a halt in the violence. “Rockets must STOP, restraint must be shown by all!” the UN Mideast envoy’s office tweeted.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, meanwhile, urged Israel and the Palestinians “to exercise maximum restraint,” according to a statement.

In light of the barrage from the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military ordered residents of communities near the Gaza Strip to remain near bomb shelters until further notice. That included residents of the towns of Netivot and Ofakim, which are not typically as affected by Gaza rockets as communities closer to the border.

Residents of the cities of Beersheba, Ashkelon and Ashdod were also told to stay within close proximity of bomb shelters and protected spaces.

A run-off election scheduled for Tuesday in the Hof Ashkelon region was postponed.

A home in Sderot hit by rocket fire from Gaza on November 12, 2018. (Screen capture/Hadashot news)

The military also canceled school for Tuesday in the Gaza border region and in the central Negev and Lachish regions, including in Israel’s fourth largest city Beersheba.

In addition, businesses were ordered closed in the Gaza region, along with government offices, unless they are considered essential or had close access to bomb shelters, the army said. No large gatherings were allowed in southern Israel on Monday night and Tuesday, it said.

In Gaza, Hamas set up multiple checkpoints in a show of force. It also restricted movement through crossings with Israel, preventing foreign journalists, local businessmen and some aid workers from leaving the territory.

Hamas also canceled a weekly beach protest in northwestern Gaza along the border with Israel. The organizers cited “the ongoing security situation.”

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