Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday vowed Israel would respond after four IDF soldiers were wounded by a bomb planted along the Gaza Strip border fence.
An Israeli tank fired a shell at an observation post in an initial response to the attack, but Netanyahu said there would be further reaction from Israel.
Soon after Netanyahu spoke, further Israeli retaliation was reported, with Palestinians saying the IDF carried out a series of strikes on targets on Hamas bases, both in northern and southern Gaza.
Also during the strikes an IDF tank opened fire on a group of Palestinians approaching the border in a “suspicious manner,” the army said. The Hamas-run health ministry said at least two people were wounded.
The army later confirmed it hit six targets, including an attack tunnel that Hamas was building in near Zeitoun in southern Gaza.
Among the other targets were “specific military targets belonging to the Hamas terror organization in the Gaza Strip and a Hamas base for producing weapons,” the army said,” adding that it holds Hamas responsible for all violence emanating from the Strip.
Immediately after the air strikes, rocket warning sirens blared in Israeli communities near the Gaza border. Hamas claimed it fired anti-aircraft missiles at the IAF planes, setting off the warning sirens in southern Gaza.
“This came in the frame of confronting the ongoing Zionist aggression against our people in the Gaza Strip,” Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades claimed without elaborating.
The claims come after Syrian air defenses shot down an Israeli F-16 jet earlier in the month, but Hamas are not known to have advanced Russian-made air defense systems.
#Hamas’ armed wing says it attempted to target Israeli jets operating in Gaza skies. #Al-Qassam Brigades: “Our ground-based anti-aircraft has confronted the #Israeli warplanes during their raids on a number of targets in the #Gaza Strip
— Rushdi Abualouf (@Rushdibbc) February 17, 2018
The army could not confirm this, but said no rockets were fired into Israel in the south.
“The incident on the Gaza border is very serious. We will respond appropriately,” said Netanyahu, who was in Germany attending a security conference. He also sent his wishes for a rapid recovery to the soldiers, two of whom were in a serious condition. The two were later said not to be in life-threatening condition.
President Reuven Rivlin also said Israel would not be cowed by terror.
“We will not be quiet in the face of any type of terror against our soldiers who are protecting the lives of the citizens of Israel,” Rivlin said.
An IDF spokesperson called the attack at the border “a serious incident that aimed at destabilizing the region.”
The army said the soldiers were hit when a patrol stopped along the border to remove a flag that had been placed at the fence a day earlier during a protest, and that a device planted below the flag then detonated.
The spokesperson said that the patrol — made up of Golani infantry soldiers and members of a combat engineering unit — was operating with standard procedures to remove any foreign object from the border fence, but that these would now be reviewed.
The soldiers were evacuated by helicopter to Soroka hospital in Beersheba for treatment, where three of them were rushed into surgery.
Palestinian media said the observation post targeted by the IDF in response belonged to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. There were no immediate claims of responsibility from the Palestinians.
Islamic Jihad has been vowing to avenge an incident where Israel destroyed one of the terrorist group’s attack tunnels that crossed from Gaza into Israel, killing many of the groups members.
On October 30, the IDF blew up the tunnel, which originated in the Gazan city of Khan Younis and crossed into Israeli territory, near Kibbutz Kissufim.
According to the army, the tunnel had been under surveillance the entire time that it was inside Israeli territory and did not pose a threat to civilians.
Some 14 terrorists, mostly from the Iran-backed group, including two senior officers, were killed in the blast and its aftermath. The army said later that this was not the primary objective of the tunnel demolition.
The incident comes amid mounting warnings that tensions in Gaza could lead to a new conflict between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers. Israel holds Hamas responsible for any violence emanating from the Strip.
Last week IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot warned ministers during a cabinet meeting that Israel could soon face another war with Gaza-based terror group Hamas, as a result of the deteriorating humanitarian and economic conditions in the coastal enclave.
In a security assessment handed recently to Netanyahu, the defense establishment reiterated its belief that Hamas is not interested in another conflict with Israel. However, an economic collapse would make such a scenario inevitable.
Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority in 2007, has been under increasing pressure as the coastal enclave teeters on the verge of an economic and infrastructure collapse that UN Middle East peace envoy Nickolay Mladenov last week said was already “well beyond” a humanitarian crisis.
Last month, the US froze over $100 million in contributions to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, after the Palestinians announced they would no longer accept the US as a mediator in peace talks with Israel. The Palestinians were angered after US President Donald Trump on December 6 recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.