In Sderot, defense minister tells everyone to ‘relax’ about rocket attacks
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In Sderot, defense minister tells everyone to ‘relax’ about rocket attacks

Liberman says latest missile launches are result of internal Palestinian power struggle, but IDF is ready ‘for any scenario’

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

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman inspects a sight on a rifle at a weapons manufacturing plant in the southern Israeli town of Sderot on December 14, 2017. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman inspects a sight on a rifle at a weapons manufacturing plant in the southern Israeli town of Sderot on December 14, 2017. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Thursday called for Israelis to “relax” despite almost nightly rocket attacks from Gaza in the past week.

Speaking from the southern city of Sderot, Liberman said the rocket fire was the result of internal Palestinian political spats and not an indication that terrorist groups were no longer afraid of Israel.

“The fact that we’re here this morning in Sderot… shows everyone that they can remain calm and relax,” Liberman said, during a tour of a new weapons manufacturing plant in the southern city, which has been targeted by rocket fire repeatedly over the past week.

“The recent launches from Gaza at Sderot have nothing to do with Israeli deterrence, but [are a result of] internal Palestinian struggles between different groups and factions,” he said.

Police find a rocket, fired from Gaza, inside a kindergarten in the southern Israeli town of Sderot on December 9, 2017. (Israel Police)

The reassurance from the ordinarily bellicose defense minister appeared to be a response to growing calls for the Israel Defense Forces to take more aggressive action against terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip in retaliation to the dozen-plus rockets that have been fired toward Israel in the past week.

After more than three years with limited rocket fire from Gaza — 26 rockets were fired in 2015, 20 in 2016, and nine from January to November 2017 — the sudden spike in December has prompted local and national politicians to call for a harsher military response and raised concerns that Israel might be headed for another conflict with terrorist groups in the Strip.

While Liberman called for calm, he noted that he had also “instructed the IDF to prepare for any scenario.”

The defense minister added: “We know what to do, how to do it and when to do it.”

Liberman was joined at the opening of the Elbit Systems plant in Sderot by the town’s mayor Alon Davidi, who on Wednesday called for the army to “strike terror groups without mercy.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center, along with Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi, center-right, and other Israeli officials cut the ribbon opening a new weapons manufacturing plant in the southern Israeli town on December 14, 2017. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Standing next to the defense minister, Davidi adopted a far more relaxed tone than he did the day before, saying residents of the town now “feel we have someone we can count on and that we will move past this wave of rockets.”

On Wednesday night, terrorists in Gaza fired four rockets at Israel. Two of them were intercepted by the military’s Iron Dome, one hit an open field in the Eshkol region, and the fourth fell short of the border and struck a school run by the United Nations, according to Israeli officials.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage caused by the Gaza rockets themselves, but two Israelis were treated for anxiety attacks and a man in his 30s was lightly injured his leg while running to a rocket shelter, the Magen David Adom rescue service said.

In response to the rocket attacks, Israeli aircraft bombed three Hamas military facilities that the army said were “used as training and weapons storage compounds.”

A Palestinian security source said there were more than 10 strikes on the targets, which included a Hamas naval site and a military base near the Shati refugee camp in northern Gaza.

Palestinian trucks loaded with supplies enters the southern Gaza Strip from Israel through the Kerem Shalom crossing in Rafah, on November 1, 2017 (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)

In addition, the IDF announced it was closing down the crossings into Gaza for both goods and people coming into and out of the Strip, with the exception of certain approved “humanitarian cases.”

On Thursday, IDF spokesperson Ronen Manelis warned terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip that the army would “do everything” to return quiet to the region, following a week of near-nightly rocket attacks from the coastal enclave.

“We are doing everything we can so that calm returns [to the Gaza area],” the army spokesperson wrote.

“Anything less than total calm is simply unacceptable,” he added.

IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis. (Israel Defense Forces)

Manelis also appeared to address the recent calls for more aggressive Israeli retaliations to the attacks, saying the deterrence the military has created in the three and a half years since the 2014 Gaza war “wasn’t built in a day and won’t come crashing down in a week — we will not allow this [rocket] fire to continue.”

Since last Wednesday, some 15 rockets have been launched from Gaza. According to Israeli officials, five of these rockets have landed in Israeli territory, six were intercepted by the Iron Dome, and the rest failed to clear the security fence and landed inside Gaza.

Two of the rockets that hit Israel struck the town of Sderot, which has over the years been the target of thousands of missile attacks. One rocket hit the courtyard of a kindergarten, shattering a window and causing light damage to the building. The school was empty at the time. The second rocket struck a street, damaging cars and at least one house.

The more than a dozen rocket attacks followed calls by Hamas for a new intifada in response to US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last week, as well as increased IDF efforts to find and destroy tunnels from the Gaza Strip that enter Israeli territory, and amid ongoing reconciliation negotiations between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Thursday was also the 30th anniversary of Hamas’s founding.

A picture taken on December 10, 2017 shows a tear gas cannister falling amdist Palestinian protesters during clashes with Israeli forces near the Israel-Gaza border east of the southern Gaza strip city of Khan Yunis. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

Hamas last week called for a new intifada against Israel and urged Palestinians to confront soldiers and settlers, allowing thousands of Gazans to confront Israeli troops at the Gaza border fence. Two Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli troops in these protests along the security fence, after the IDF says they repeatedly refused to heed calls and warnings to keep away from the barrier.

In an address last Wednesday from the White House, Trump defied worldwide warnings and insisted that after repeated failures to achieve peace a new approach was long overdue, describing his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the seat of Israel’s government as merely based on reality.

The move was hailed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and by leaders across much of the Israeli political spectrum. Trump stressed that he was not specifying the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in the city, and called for no change in the status quo at the city’s holy sites.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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