Sirens triggered in southern Israel 166 times in 22 hours

If Hamas holds fire we will too, Israeli official says amid respite in attacks

In response to largest attack since 2014, military pummels dozens of Hamas, Islamic Jihad positions in the Strip – but not the people firing the shells and rockets

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

A senior defense official said Wednesday that Israel was prepared to refrain from further attacks on Gaza if terror factions in the Strip also kept the peace, indicating that an informal ceasefire has taken hold after a restive day.

The Israeli Air Force bombed dozens of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad facilities across the Gaza Strip in two rounds of air raids, on Tuesday afternoon and predawn Wednesday, amid the largest exchange between Israel and Gazan terrorist groups since the 2014 war. The escalation began with a barrage of mortar shells fired into southern Israel by Islamic Jihad on Tuesday morning, one of which landed outside a kindergarten shortly before the children arrived.

Over the course of 22 hours, from 7 a.m. Tuesday to 5:17 a.m. Wednesday, sirens were triggered at least 166 times in southern Israel, according to the IDF Home Front Command, by mortar fire, rockets or, in some cases, heavy machine gun fire.

A reported Egyptian-brokered informal ceasefire between Palestinian terror groups and Israel appeared to be holding on Wednesday morning, with both sides blaming the other for the flareup.

Israel denied that it had reached an agreement, but a senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, indicated to reporters that an understanding had been reached under which Israel would not conduct additional strikes in Gaza so long as no more rockets or mortar shells were fired.

Israeli soldiers walk near an army tank patrolling along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip on May 29, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Jack GUEZ)

“If the launches are renewed, the attacks against Hamas will be intensified,” the official said.

As of Wednesday morning, the military had yet to release a final tally for the number of projectiles fired at southern Israel from Gaza, but it is likely to approach 200.

From the end of the 2014 Gaza war until Tuesday, approximately 80 projectiles were fired from Gaza into Israel, according to Israeli figures.

Dozens of the incoming mortar shells and rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, which proved relatively successful for the first time against the short-range mortar fire. Others landed in open fields in southern Israel. A small number landed inside Israeli communities, including a mortar round that directly hit a home in the Eshkol region and the shell that exploded in the yard of a kindergarten. Parts of a rocket also struck a sports center in the town of Netivot, causing damage to the facility but no injuries.

A home in the southern Eshkol region damaged by mortar fire from the Gaza Strip early on May 30, 2018 (courtesy Eshkol Regional Council)

In total, four people, three of them soldiers, were injured by the mortar attacks. One of the soldiers was moderately hurt, requiring surgery, while the other casualties were lightly wounded and quickly released from the hospital after treatment.

In response to the repeated mortar and rocket attacks, the army carried out two waves of aerial bombardments in Gaza, hitting approximately 65 targets in total, including a Hamas attack tunnel that extended hundreds of yards into Israel, drone facilities and rocket manufacturing plants, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

On Wednesday morning, the military released footage from some of its Gaza strikes (video at top).

Flames from rockets fired by Palestinians are seen over Gaza Strip heading toward Israel , early Wednesday, May 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

Notably missing from the army’s list of targets were the terror cells firing the scores of mortars and rockets at southern Israel.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry did not report any casualties in the Strip during the two rounds of air raids.

The military appeared to be trying to send a clear message to Hamas and Islamic Jihad that it would not tolerate rocket and mortar fire, while also limiting the force of its retaliatory raids in order to keep the situation from escalating into all-out war.

The first wave of IDF bombardments, conducted early Tuesday afternoon, struck approximately 40 targets, including a “unique” attack tunnel dug by Hamas that extended approximately two kilometers (1.6 miles) from the Gaza Strip through Egypt and into Israel. The army said it appeared to be a dual-use tunnel, for both smuggling from Egypt and for carrying out cross-border raids in Israel.

Approximately 10 hours later, after the Palestinian terrorist groups continued to regularly fire rockets and mortar shells toward Israel throughout the afternoon and evening, the air force carried out a second round of strikes in Gaza.

In a little over an hour, Israeli warplanes and attack helicopters bombed some 25 Hamas targets in Gaza during that wave of air raids, the army said.

Video from Gaza showed large explosions rocking the area as aircraft were heard roaring overhead.

On Tuesday night, Hamas and the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad released a rare joint statement claiming responsibility for the rockets and mortar shells fired at southern Israel throughout the day.

Israel holds Hamas responsible for all violence emanating from the coastal enclave, which it has ruled since taking control in a violent coup in 2007.

“Hamas chooses to act against the interests of the residents of the Strip and, after it failed with its violent riots along the security fence, has decided to launch and to allow the launch of numerous projectiles at Israeli citizens,” the army said in a statement.

A picture taken from Gaza City on May 29, 2018, shows a smoke billowing in the background following an Israeli air strike on the Palestinian enclave. (AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX)

IDF Spokesperson Ronen Manelis said at an evening press conference that the army was prepared to intensify its retaliatory raids if Hamas and Islamic Jihad continued to launch projectiles at Israel.

“The IDF is prepared for a number of scenarios, is determined to act against terrorist operatives and will continue to fulfill its mission of defending the citizens of Israel,” the army said.

On Tuesday night, an Islamic Jihad spokesman said a “ceasefire agreement was reached with Israel to return to calm.”

He told AFP that Gaza’s rulers Hamas were also committed to it.

The Hamas-affiliated Shehab news outlet reported that Egypt helped broker the agreement, which was based on the truce reached at the end of the 2014 Gaza war.

An Israeli Air Force F-15 takes off during the Blue Flag air exercise at the Ovda air force base, north of the Israeli city of Eilat, on November 8, 2017. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Earlier, Israel’s Hadashot TV news reported that Egyptian intelligence had contacted Hamas and Islamic Jihad and urged them to rein in projectile fire in order to prevent the violence from spiraling into a larger conflict.

Egypt had been instrumental in calming tensions in the Strip earlier this month, after clashes during violent protests along the border on May 14 led to the deaths of 64 Palestinians, at least 53 of them members of terror organizations.

Throughout the day on Tuesday, Israeli officials and Hamas and Islamic Jihad all sent out signals that they were uninterested in a further escalation of violence, even as sporadic rocket fire trickled out of the Strip after sundown.

“We are not set on escalating the situation, but the Israel Defense Forces will respond forcefully to all fire from the Strip and will exact a price,” a senior Israeli official said, after a top-level emergency meeting convened by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Illustrative: Members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group attend the funeral of fellow terrorists killed in an Israeli operation to blow up a tunnel stretching from the Gaza Strip into Israel in central Gaza, on October 31, 2017. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

Hamas and Islamic Jihad released similar messages through Palestinian media, saying they were not interested in escalating the situation but that “you must be stupid to think that we won’t retaliate.”

Intelligence Minister Israel Katz told Army Radio the cross-border violence could potentially intensify.

He said Israel was closer to war than it had been since 2014, when the country fought a punishing 50-day war with Gaza-led fighters that the enclave has yet to recover from.

“We don’t want war and neither do they, but we have our red lines,” Katz said.

The site where a mortar shell from Gaza hit a kindergarten in southern Israel on May 29, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Meanwhile, the US requested an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss Palestinian attacks on Israel, the US mission said.

The council was expected to meet Wednesday to discuss the cross-border violence.

“The recent attacks out of Gaza are the largest we have seen since 2014,” US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said in a statement. “The Security Council should be outraged and respond to this latest bout of violence directed at innocent Israeli civilians, and the Palestinian leadership needs to be held accountable for what they’re allowing to happen in Gaza.”

The international community was largely supportive of Israel throughout Tuesday, condemning terror group’s salvos of rockets and mortars on civilian populations, while calling on both sides to work toward calm.

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