Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a visit to Paris and was returning to Israel after intense fighting broke out between Israeli forces and Palestinian fighters in the Gaza Strip and a string of rocket sirens wailed across southern Israel.
Netanyahu, in Paris on a state visit to commemorate the centenary for the end of World War 1, was updated on the security situation in the enclave on Sunday night, as flight paths were diverted at Israel’s main airport and the country appeared to shift abruptly into war footing.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman was huddled with senior military officials at defense headquarters in Tel Aviv, meeting with the IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman and others, his office said, with the meeting lasting around an hour.
There was no statement on results of the meeting.
The fighting broke out after a group of Israeli commandos drove some three kilometers into Gaza and killed a senior Hamas commander and six other Palestinian terrorists, according to the terror group.
A firefight ensued between the Israeli troops and Hamas fighters, with Israeli drones carrying out dozens of airstrikes in the area.
The Israeli military confirmed that “an exchange of fire broke out during security activities by the IDF in the Gaza Strip region,” but did not elaborate further, including on if there were any injuries on the Israeli side.
As rumors spread wildly on social media on Sunday night, the IDF said no Israeli soldier had been kidnapped in the skirmish.
“IDF operated in the Gaza Strip, exchange of gunfire ensued. All IDF soldiers back in Israel,” IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus wrote on Twitter.
Several volleys of rockets were apparently shot at Israel amid the fighting, with at least two being intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.
There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage from missile strikes and local government officials said some alarms may have been triggered by the IDF’s air raids, not by rockets from Gaza.
Residents of southern Israel had been instructed to remain close to their bomb shelters in the event of reprisals Sunday night and school in the area was canceled for Monday.
The flight paths into and out of Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport were also altered in light of the Gaza clashes.
The fighting punctured a reprieve in border tensions between Gaza and Israel. Earlier in the day, Netanyahu had spoken to reporters about his willingness to avoid fighting.
Due to security incidents in the south, the Prime Minister has decided to cut short the trip to Paris and will return to Israel tonight.
— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) November 11, 2018
“I am doing everything I can to avoid an unnecessary war,” said the prime minister, pointing to the deaths of millions during the First World War as an example of senseless bloody warfare. “I am not afraid of war if it’s necessary, but I want to avoid it if it’s not necessary.”
Netanyahu was in Paris to attend the 100th anniversary commemorations of the end of World War I along with other world leaders.
He is due back in Israel on Monday, but while he is gone, Culture Minister Miri Regev is acting prime minister. Liberman was left in charge of convening the security cabinet of top ministers, which has the ability to declare war and launch major operations, but the group had not been called for a meeting as of 11:30 p.m.
According to local Palestinian outlets, the head of Hamas’s eastern Khan Younis battalion was killed in the drone strike, along with at least five other members of the Gaza-ruling terrorist group. The seventh Palestinian killed was a member of the Nasser Salahdin Brigades, the armed wing of the Popular Resistance Committees, Hamas said in a statement. At least seven other Palestinians were reported injured. The Gaza-based Shams news reported that Palestinians fired at Israeli aircraft during the raid.
Weekly Gaza border protests, dubbed the “Great March of Return,” have been going on since March 30 and have mostly involved the burning of tires and rock-throwing along the security fence, but have also seen shooting attacks, bombings and attempted border breaches as well as the launching of incendiary balloons and kites into Israel. Southern Israel has also seen sporadic, but aggressive rocket bombardments from the Gaza Strip.
Egypt, alongside United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process Nikolay Mladenov, has recently played a key role in attempts to mediate a ceasefire between Israel and the armed groups in the Strip.
Egyptian mediators have been working intensively to maintain calm, and also hope to bring about national reconciliation between the Hamas terror group, which seized Gaza by force in 2007, and the West Bank-based administration of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Agencies contributed to this report.