PM warns terror leaders: If rockets continue, you'll be next

Fresh barrages of Gaza rockets strike south as both sides vow further attacks

Terrorists launch dozens of projectiles at Israeli cities and villages around the enclave as IDF bombs Islamic Jihad sites; Israel closes border crossing, restricts fishing zone

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Smoke trails from a rocket fired by Palestinian terrorists are seen over the Gaza Strip on February 24, 2020. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)
Smoke trails from a rocket fired by Palestinian terrorists are seen over the Gaza Strip on February 24, 2020. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Terrorists in the Gaza Strip fired several large barrages of rockets at cities and communities throughout southern Israel on Monday afternoon, as both sides threatened to expand their attacks against one another.

No physical injuries were reported in those bombardments, though some of the projectiles caused damage to homes and infrastructure in southern Israel. A small number of Israelis sustained minor injuries while running to bomb shelters.

At the same time, the Israel Defense Forces conducted a series of strikes on Palestinian Islamic Jihad sites in the Gaza Strip. The military said this included a rocket launchpad in northern Gaza, which it said was used to fire rockets at Israel earlier in the day, as well as seven observation posts along the border with Israel.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said that no one was injured in the Israeli strikes Monday.

In addition, Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians announced that it would be closing Gaza’s Erez pedestrian crossing, save for “humanitarian cases,” and that it was restricting the Strip’s fishing zone to six nautical miles, from 15. The Kerem Shalom crossing, which bring in the majority of Gaza’s commercial goods, would remain open.

The liaison unit, known formally as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, said these measures were in response to the Islamic Jihad’s rocket attacks from the Strip.

Both Israeli and Palestinian officials threatened to step up their strikes if the other side continued its attacks.

“We don’t want a larger war, but we are preparing the plans, and if there is no choice, we will have a forceful campaign,” Defense Minister Naftali Bennett told the mayors of southern Israeli towns Monday.

Israeli airstrikes in Khan Younis, southern Gaza, February 24, 2020. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to threaten to kill the heads of Gaza’s terror groups if rocket fire from the Strip continued.

“We will continue to strike until the calm returns. If there won’t be quiet, you’ll be next,” Netanyahu said, during a visit to the city of Ashdod.

The Israeli military also began sending additional tanks and artillery cannons to the Gaza border area.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, center-left, speaks with mayors of southern Israeli towns during a battle with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in the Gaza Strip on February 24, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The Islamic Jihad’s military wing — the al-Quds Brigades — said earlier in the day that it too was prepared to respond if Israel continued to conduct strikes against it.

“We, in the al-Quds Brigades, are ready to confront any aggression. The enemy should know that if it continues [to carry out aggression], we will respond with force and efficiency,” the terror group said.

The latest wave of rocket fire from Gaza began just before 4 p.m., continuing for over an hour and a half, with several rounds of rockets and mortar shells fired at the cities of Ashkelon, Sderot and and Netivot, as well as smaller communities in the regions to the east and north of the Gaza Strip. The attacks sent tens of thousands of people rushing to bomb shelters.

Throughout Sunday and Monday, terror groups in the Strip — chiefly the Palestinian Islamic Jihad — launched dozens of rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel. The majority of those were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, according to the Israeli military. Most of the remaining rockets landed in open fields, where they caused neither injury nor damage.

A small number struck inside populated areas, including one rocket that hit a playground in the town of Sderot, causing damage. A mortar shell also struck an Israeli road just outside the Gaza Strip.

A police sapper removes pieces of a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip that struck a playground in the town of Sderot on February 24, 2020. (Israel Police)

The IDF’s high interception rate indicated an impressive performance by the Iron Dome missile defense system and its operators, as well as a high degree of accuracy by terror groups in the Strip. In general, the Iron Dome is only activated when an incoming projectile is heading toward a populated area, rather than an open field where it is unlikely to cause injury or damage.

In response to the attacks throughout Monday, the IDF also said it struck an Islamic Jihad military base in the Gazan city of Khan Younis, along with other facilities controlled by the terror group in the Strip. The military said the Khan Younis base, which featured underground infrastructure, was used by Islamic Jihad as both a training center and a storage depot for weaponry.

Smoke trails are left in the sky after Palestinian terrorists fire a rocket at southern Israel from the Gaza Strip on February 24, 2020. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

In announcing the fresh airstrikes in Gaza on Monday, the IDF notably mentioned only Islamic Jihad, not the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group, with which Israel hopes to negotiate a ceasefire agreement.

In the past, Israel held Hamas responsible for all violence emanating from the Strip, regardless of which terror group was behind it. However, the IDF has lately begun to distinguish between Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which Israel believes is responsible for the majority of the violence along the Gaza border in recent months.

Sunday’s rocket fire came after an irregular clash along the Gaza border earlier Sunday in which Israeli troops shot dead a member Palestinian Islamic Jihad as he planted an improvised explosive device along the border. The Israeli military then retrieved his body, using a bulldozer.

The retrieval of the corpse was apparently part of Bennett’s announced plan to “hoard” the corpses of Palestinian terrorists in order to use them as “bargaining chips” in negotiations for the release of two Israeli men, and the remains of two fallen Israeli soldiers, who are being held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The smoke trail of a rocket, fired by Palestinian terrorists, flying over the Gaza Strip, on February 23, 2020. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

The border clashes come amid reports of ongoing efforts by Israel to seal a ceasefire agreement with Gaza terror groups, following weeks of intermittent rocket fire and the regular launching of balloon-borne explosive devices into Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened Monday that Israel could begin a major operation to stem rocket fire and other attacks on Israeli communities near the Gaza border, despite elections being a week away.

“War is a last resort, but there may be no escape from it. We’ve prepared a radically different campaign,” Netanyahu said.

“If Israel is in the position of entering a large-scale military operation, we will have to deal a bigger blow than [operations] Cast Lead, Pillar of Defense and Protective Edge. It could very well be that we may have to carry out — I don’t really want to say it, but — ‘the mother of all operations,'” he said.

Israeli military surveillance footage of two alleged Palestinian Islamic Jihad members planting what appears to be a bomb along the Gaza border on February 23, 2020. (Screen capture: Israel Defense Forces)

In November, Israel fought a punishing two-day battle with the Islamic Jihad, sparked by the IDF killing one of the terror group’s leaders — Baha Abu al-Ata — whom Israel believed was responsible for most of the group’s aggressive actions.

Adam Rasgon and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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