A man was killed and two women were seriously injured after a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip scored a direct hit on an apartment building in Ashkelon.
The fatality was the first in Israel after a day that saw more than 300 missiles and mortar rounds fired at Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip in a series of massive barrages that stretched past midnight Monday and into Tuesday morning.
The missile attacks appeared to taper off after 1 a.m., but were widely expected to resume in the morning, amid reports of continuing Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.
The man, a civilian in his 40s, was found dead under debris after an apartment building had been hit by a missile fired from Gaza shortly after midnight, according to the United Hatzalah rescue service.
The rocket appeared to have hit the upper floors of the four-story apartment building, leaving a gaping hole in its side.
A woman, also in her 40s, was found in serious condition near the man and was rushed to Barzilai hospital.
Unconfirmed reports in Hebrew media identified the man as a West Bank Palestinian living in Israel without documentation. The woman was not immediately identified.
According to the Haaretz daily, the two were spotted by a photographer who had come to take pictures of the damage, about an hour after police and rescuers had left the building.
The photographer said the two were under a wall that had collapsed. Police told the daily that all the apartments in the building were checked four to five times, but that particular unit had sustained the most damage “and everything was destroyed.”
Rescuers earlier pulled out a 60-year-old woman in critical condition from the same building and six other more lightly injured people.
The woman was found unresponsive in one of the apartments, suffering from injuries throughout her body caused by shrapnel from the rocket, medics said.
A 40-year-old man was also moderately wounded by shrapnel; two women in their 20s were lightly injured by glass shards; and two men in their 40s and a woman in her 90s were treated for smoke inhalation after a fire broke out at the scene, according to the Magen David Adom ambulance service.
Ashkelon suffered several missile barrages late Monday, with a home also being hit. One person suffered light injuries from that attack.
Strikes on buildings in Netivot and Sderot caused significant damage and minor injuries to the occupants, and sparked fires in the surrounding area.
The rocket attacks, which began with several large barrages on small towns near the Gaza border in the afternoon, have threatened to ratchet up tensions in the restive region, casting a shadow over intensive ceasefire efforts.
The IDF said dozens of incoming projectiles from Gaza were shot down by the Iron Dome air defense system. Most of the rest landed in open fields outside Israeli communities, but a number struck homes and buildings in cities and towns across the south.
In response to the attacks, the Israeli military launched a series of strikes against dozens of targets inside the Gaza Strip, including multi-story buildings housing a hamas military intelligence center and the headquarters of al-Aqsa TV.
The army also said it targeted three attack tunnels operated by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the two largest terror groups in the Strip.
At least three Palestinians — each identified by terror groups as a member — were killed in the army’s initial strikes and Gaza’s health ministry said early Tuesday that a fourth person succumbed to wounds sustained in a strike the day before.
The fatality, 22, was not immediately identified.
The United Nations 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.
But both sides indicated they were ready to keep ramp up the violence if need be.
The military deployed additional troops and tanks to the border and was reportedly given a green light from policymakers to pummel terror groups in the Strip if they continued with the barrages.
At the same time, Hamas threatened to fire rockets deeper into Israel, calling the attacks on 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 spokesman said.
IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis issued his own threat, tweeting that “Hamas knows well what our targets are and what the price of conflict with the IDF is.
The attacks began shortly after 4:30 p.m., when terrorists fired a Kornet anti-tank guided missile at an Israeli bus near the border, seriously injuring an IDF soldier who was on board at the time. Dozens of other soldiers had previously been on the bus, parked near the Black Arrow memorial near Kibbutz Kfar Azza, and exited moments before the missile struck.
On Monday evening, large numbers of tanks and other military vehicles were seen being moved down to the Gaza border on the backs of large trucks. Earlier in the day, before the barrages began, the army also ordered extra infantry battalions to the region.
Additional Iron Dome air defense batteries were also deployed in southern Israel on Monday morning.
The barrages from Gaza came less than a day after an IDF special forces officer was killed in an operation gone awry that also killed seven Palestinian gunmen in the Strip. Following Sunday night’s incident, the Gaza-ruling terror group Hamas said “the blood of our righteous martyrs will not be wasted.”
The renewed clashes dashed hopes that Israel and Hamas would uphold a precarious ceasefire agreement recently brokered by Egypt and the United Nations and supported by Qatar.
In light of the barrage from the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military ordered residents of communities near the Gaza Strip to remain inside 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 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.
The military also preemptively 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, the army said. No large gatherings were allowed in southern Israel on Monday night and Tuesday, it said.
In the central Negev and Lachish regions, which are farther from the Strip, businesses are only ordered shut if they do not have a bomb shelter nearby. Government services there were also scaled back.
In these regions, located dozens of kilometers from Gaza, only groups smaller than 300 would be allowed to gather on Tuesday, the army said.
In Gaza, Hamas set up checkpoints across Gaza 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.”
In recent weeks, Egyptian and UN mediators had appeared to make 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 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a visit to Paris because of the flare-up and returned to Israel on Monday for consultations with top security officials.
A meeting of top ministers in the security cabinet was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
On Sunday, Netanyahu defended his decision to allow through the Qatari cash to Gaza as a way to avert an “unnecessary war,” maintain quiet for residents of southern Israel and prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in the impoverished Gaza Strip.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.