Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday Israel’s military had delivered the “harshest blow” in years to Gaza terrorist groups, which he said are inspired by Iran, in his first comments on the most serious flare-up since the 2014 war.
“Since yesterday the IDF has strongly retaliated against the firing from the Gaza Strip and has hit dozens of terrorist targets in the harshest blow we have dealt them in years,” Netanyahu said.
Speaking at the memorial ceremony for the victims of the Altalena ship, sunk during Israel’s War of Independence amid infighting among Jewish military groups, the prime minister blamed Hamas and the Islamic Jihad for the firing of some 200 rockets and mortar shells since early Tuesday and warned the Palestinian terror groups would “pay dearly” if the rocket fire resumes.
“The Hamas regime, Islamic Jihad and the other terrorist organizations, inspired by Iran, are responsible for the escalation,” the prime minister said. “I will not detail our plans because I do not want the enemy to know what to expect. But one thing is clear: When they test us, they pay immediately. And if they continue testing us, they will pay dearly.”
Netanyahu spoke as the rocket fire subsided, with the Hamas terrorist group saying an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire with Israel had been reached. Israel denied there was an agreement, but a senior Israeli 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 as long as no more rockets or mortar shells were fired.
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 Operation Protective Edge in 2014. 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.
According to the military, among the targets struck by the air force were a terror tunnel that extended into Israel, Hamas drone facilities, naval bases, caches of shoulder-fired SA-7 missiles and a rocket manufacturing plant. In addition, the army said, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad weapons depot, containing locally produced rockets, was also destroyed in southern Gaza.
Critics of the army’s actions on Tuesday and Wednesday noted that the military did not strike the terror cells firing the rockets and mortar shells at Israel. The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry did not report on any casualties in the IDF’s strikes.
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.
The army said it determined that on Tuesday and Wednesday over 100 rockets and mortar shells were fired from the Gaza Strip and were on a trajectory to hit Israel. A large number of the projectiles launched from Gaza failed to clear the border and thus were not included in the military’s figure.
The number of rockets and mortar shells fired over the course of those 22 hours was greater than in the previous three years and 10 months, since the 2014 war, combined.
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.
In his remarks, Netanyahu also said that next week he will travel to Germany, France and Britain to meet with European leaders on the Iran nuclear deal and Iranian military entrenchment in neighboring Syria.
“I will present them with the latest strategic developments in our region, which are connected to the efforts to halt Iranian aggression in Syria and elsewhere.”
“We will not allow Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said. “We will continue to act against its intention to establish a military presence in Syria opposite us, not just opposite the Golan Heights but anywhere in Syria.”