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IDF reportedly determines lightning bolt triggered rockets

Netanyahu, Gantz warn Gaza terror groups after rockets fired at central Israel

Following predawn attack, PM threatens ‘price of continued aggression will be heavy, very heavy’; defense minister reiterates Hamas ultimately responsible for violence from Strip

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

This picture taken from Gaza City shows lightning flashing over buildings as the flare of a rocket launch is seen nearby during a thunderstorm in Gaza city on November 15, 2020. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)
This picture taken from Gaza City shows lightning flashing over buildings as the flare of a rocket launch is seen nearby during a thunderstorm in Gaza city on November 15, 2020. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz issued warnings to Gaza terror groups on Sunday, with the latter indicating their leadership could be targeted if fire from the enclave continued, following a predawn rocket attack that struck the Israeli coast.

“We will not accept any attacks against the State of Israel and the citizens of Israel,” Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting. “Even during the coronavirus crisis, do not try us. I never give details of our operational plans, but I say to them — the price of continued aggression will be heavy, very heavy.”

Although no terror group has claimed responsibility, Gantz said Hamas, which rules Gaza, was ultimately responsible for the attack, and threatened the group’s commanders if the violence continued.

The Israel Defense Forces was looking into who was behind the attack and had reportedly determined the rockets were fired mistakenly, set off by a lightning strike. Palestinian media in Gaza similarly reported that the rockets, which had been pre-aimed and armed, were triggered by the storm.

“Tonight was not a quiet night and there is one group responsible for it — the Hamas organization,” he said, speaking during a ceremony marking the 64th anniversary of the 1956 Sinai War.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with Alternate PM and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, both wearing protective mask due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

“If Hamas does not stand up to the test of maintaining quiet — the consequences will be harshest, first and foremost for its leadership and for the residents of the Strip. Our response to violations of our sovereignty — beyond what we’ve already done — will continue in the time, place and manner that will serve our long-term interests, of the citizens of Israel and of the State of Israel,” Gantz said.

Shortly after 2 a.m. Sunday, two rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip at Israel, one of which landed in an open field north of the city of Ashdod and the second of which struck Palmachim Beach south of Tel Aviv, causing neither damage nor injury. Shrapnel from an Iron Dome air defense interceptor missile caused minor damage in the city of Bat Yam.

In response, the Israel Defense Forces said, it targeted “an underground structure and military positions belonging to the Hamas terror group.”

Later in the day, at the weekly cabinet meeting, the defense minister added that the military may respond further to the attack.

“This morning’s retaliation was fast and immediate, but it wasn’t necessarily the end of it. I won’t go further into the plans, but we are working to ensure the calm will be preserved,” Gantz said.

This was not the first time that lightning has been blamed for rocket launches from the Gaza Strip. In October 2018, a rocket destroyed a home in the city of Beersheba and another landed off the coast of central Israel; and in March 2019, a rocket struck a home in central Israel, injuring seven and causing massive damage to the structure. In both of these cases, which came amid periods of heightened tensions, lightning was alleged to be the trigger for the launch, setting off rockets that had been preemptively aimed and primed at central Israel.

Sunday’s attack came following threats from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group that were made to mark the first anniversary of the killing of one of its commanders, Baha Abu al-Ata, by Israel on November 12, 2019.

This picture shows lightning above buildings during a thunderstorm in Gaza City, early on November 15, 2020. (Mahmud Hams / AFP)

The attack also came as Israel and Hamas were negotiating a long-term ceasefire agreement.

The defense minister hinted at these ongoing talks with Hamas, saying Israel was operating “in a number of ways, both operational and other” to bring calm to the south.

Abu al-Ata’s death on November 12, 2019, sparked a fierce round of fighting known in the military as Operation Black Belt. Last week also marked the anniversary of an IDF intelligence operation that went awry on November 11, 2018, leading to a large exchange of fire between Israel and terror groups in the Strip, as well as a major, week-long campaign against Hamas in November 2012, known as Operation Pillar of Defense.

In this photo taken on October 21, 2016, Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror leader Baha Abu al-Ata attends a rally in Gaza City. (STR/AFP)

The IDF went on heightened alert Wednesday, sending additional air defenses to southern Israel, ahead of the anniversary. In addition to more Iron Dome missile defense batteries deployed to the south, flights into and out of Israel appeared to have been directed to use Ben Gurion International Airport’s northern paths, keeping them farther from the Gaza Strip.

These changes in air traffic routes — visible with civilian flight path tracking software — are generally seen when there is active fighting or expectations of it. A spokesperson for the Israel Airports Authority did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter.

Abu al-Ata was a prominent member of the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, the commander of the Al-Quds Brigades’ units in the northern Gaza Strip, who the IDF believed was personally responsible for many attacks against Israel in the months before he was killed.

He was killed, along with his wife, in a precision strike on the apartment in which he was staying in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood, following months of preparation by the military.

Palestinian terror groups have been known to carry out attacks on the anniversaries of such conflicts.

Though Israel is involved in ongoing talks with the Hamas terror group regarding a long-term ceasefire agreement, recent weeks have seen an uptick in violence emanating from Gaza.

Two weeks ago, a drone was flown from the Strip into Israeli airspace before it was brought down by the Israeli military. The week before saw a rocket attack from the Strip, aimed at the Israeli city of Ashkelon. One projectile was intercepted, the other landed in an open field.

Last month, the IDF also uncovered what it said was a Hamas attack tunnel dug from Gaza into Israel.

Israel has fought three large campaigns against terror groups in the Strip since Hamas took control of the area in 2007, along with dozens of smaller exchanges of fire.

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