Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Saturday that Israel would step up its strikes on Gaza until the Palestinian terror groups halt all violence coming out of the coastal enclave.
Netanyahu said that after consultations with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and the IDF chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot it was decided to take “powerful action against Hamas terror.”
“The IDF hit Hamas with the harshest blow since Operation Protective Edge and we will intensify our reaction as much as necessary,” Netanyahu said Saturday evening, after the IDF attacked dozens of targets in the Strip on Saturday, amid relentless rocket fire from Gaza, in the most extensive daytime assault since the 2014 conflict.
“If Hamas does not understand the message today, it will understand tomorrow,” Netanyahu said in a video statement.
Throughout the day Palestinians fired more than 100 rockets and mortar shells at Israel. Three Israelis were wounded when rockets hit a home and a synagogue in the border town of Sderot. They were evacuated to hospital in a moderate condition.
Also, Palestinians reported that two teens were killed when the air force bombed a multi-story Hamas training complex in the Gaza Strip, completely destroying the building and exposing a tunnel complex underneath.
The Hamas-run health ministry identified the dead as 15-year-old Amir al-Nimra and 16-year-old Louay Kahil. It said 14 others were wounded in the more than 40 Israeli strikes throughout the day.
The Walla news site quoted a senior defense official as saying that Liberman had been in talks during the day with Nikolay Mladinov, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process.
Mladinov reportedly held talks with several Israeli and Egyptian officials in an attempt to restore calm to the region.
According to Walla, Liberman told Mladinov that Israel’s main demand was the halt of the fire kites and balloons.
Hadashot TV news reported late Saturday that while Hamas leaders have told Egyptian mediators that they will keep firing rockets into Israel until the IDF stops its military actions, and bragged about the rocket fire, the Egyptians told Hamas that Israel is ready for an escalation of the conflict if necessary, and that therefore if Hamas wants the exchanges to stop, it will have to halt first. The TV news report also speculated that while Hamas might now be looking for a ceasefire, the small Islamic Jihad terror group was not.
“The message we are conveying is that we will not accept missiles, explosive devices, mortar shells, or kites,” Israel’s Intelligence Minister Israel Katz told the TV station. “Not any kind of terrorism.”
Over the last few months, Palestinians in Gaza have flown thousands of kites and balloons attached to incendiary devices that have set off hundreds of fires in farm lands and nature reserves along the border with Gaza, destroying tens of thousands of acres.
Earlier in the day the IDF said it had three main aims in its military actions in Gaza: Stopping the fire kites, the rocket fire, and the weekly protests along the Gaza border.
The Security Cabinet was to convene for an emergency meeting Sunday afternoon to deal with the escalating violence in Gaza.
Israeli ministers were updated on the developments by phone overnight Friday-Saturday, as residents of Israeli communities near Gaza spent the night in bomb shelters.
Israel’s political leadership was considering a range of possibilities for trying to halt the rocket fire, including targeted assassinations of Hamas terror chiefs, the use of ground forces, and a ceasefire mediated by Egypt and/or others, but no decision had been made as of Saturday late afternoon, Hadashot TV news reported.
Eisenkot also met with senior commanders in the south to review the situation.
Egyptian sources said Cairo was working to prevent a further escalation and towards mediating a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian terror groups, the Walla news site reported.
According to unconfirmed reports in Gaza, by late afternoon Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials had ordered their operatives to halt all rocket fire. Nevertheless, the fire continued unabated.
After midnight Friday-Saturday, the Israel Defense Forces hit an attack tunnel and Hamas training bases in Gaza in response to the moderate wounding of an IDF officer by a hand-grenade thrown during a border riot on Friday.
During the night, Palestinians fired more than 30 projectiles into Israel and kept up the attacks on Saturday, firing a further 60 rockets and mortar shells. Residents of Israeli border communities spent the night in bomb shelters and were cautioned to remain close to the shelters during the day.
The IDF said Iron Dome intercepted 20 projectiles in total that were headed for residential areas.
The primary target of the IAF strikes Saturday was the Hamas battalion headquarters in Beit Lahia, in the north of the Strip, the army said.
“The focus of the attack is a wide-scale strike of the Hamas Battalion HQ in Beit Lahia, which includes urban warfare training facilities, weapon storage warehouse, training compounds, command centers, offices, and more,” the IDF said in a statement.
“In addition, a weapons manufacturing site and storage facilities housing various types of weapons, including Hamas’ naval capabilities, were struck,” it said.
The air force also attacked a Palestinian terrorist cell launching mortar shells.
The IDF spokesman said the aim of the operation was to “restore a sense of security” and that the military would “respond as necessary” to a wide range of scenarios.
Local residents, who had earlier been told they could return to their usual routines after a barrage overnight Friday, were instructed to remain close to bomb shelters, and large gatherings of people were to be canceled.
Hamas on Saturday said the barrage of rockets and mortar shells into Israeli territory overnight was fired by the “resistance” to “stop Israeli escalation.”
The spokesman for the terrorist group, Fawzi Barhoum, also said the projectiles were an “immediate response” that was meant to “deliver the message” to Israel.
The army said it held Hamas responsible for all violence emanating from Gaza, which the terror group has ruled since 2007.