Israel pounds Gaza, vows rocket fire won’t be tolerated
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Israel pounds Gaza, vows rocket fire won’t be tolerated

Planes, tanks bomb Hamas posts in Strip in response to rocket, small arms attacks as tensions mount along border

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

Palestinians run for cover as sand and smoke rise following an Israeli airstrike on a Hamas post in the northern Gaza Strip on February 6, 2017. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
Palestinians run for cover as sand and smoke rise following an Israeli airstrike on a Hamas post in the northern Gaza Strip on February 6, 2017. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Israeli aircraft and tanks pounded Hamas targets in Gaza in a series of sorties Monday, after a rocket was shot into Israeli territory earlier in the day, as tensions with the volatile coastal enclave spiraled upwards.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would not tolerate a “drizzle” of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip “without a response,” as planes continued to strike targets in the Strip.

The airstrikes and tank fire came after a rocket landed in an open field in southern Israel Monday morning. The day also saw an IDF patrol near the border fired upon.

“My policy is to respond strongly to any rocket fire,” Netanyahu said from London, where he’s on a state visit. “We are firm in this response.”

The Israel Defense Forces said it struck numerous Hamas positions in northern and central Gaza, including a naval base near the city of Jabaliya.

In the latest incident on Monday evening, Israeli aircraft attacked “three terrorist infrastructures belonging to the Hamas terrorist group” in the Gaza Strip, the army said.

The IDF would not specify the locations of the strikes, but Gaza-based media reported that Hamas positions in Gaza City, Khan Younis and Juhor ad-Dik were targeted in the aerial bombardment.

Gazan health ministry spokesperson Dr. Ashraf al-Qidra said two Palestinians were injured by shrapnel from Israeli airstrikes in Khan Younis, located in southern Gaza. He did not specify the intensity of their injuries.

A tank takes part in a training exercise near the Gaza Strip on December 6, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
A tank takes part in a training exercise near the Gaza Strip on December 6, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

The army said its strikes were in response not only to Monday’s rocket attack and gunfire, but also to “other incidents from Gaza in the last month.” This was an apparent reference to smaller scale incidents that have occurred along the security fence surrounding the Strip.

IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said the army’s forceful response was meant to show Gaza-based terrorist groups that it will not stomach such attacks on Israel.

“Twice Gaza terrorists breached Israeli sovereignty [and] jeopardized the wellbeing of civilians and troops,” Lerner told The Times of Israel. “This is a clear message that it’s just not acceptable.”

In response to the IDF strikes, the Hamas terrorist group said it holds Israel “fully” responsible for any fallout or escalation in hostilities between the two sides.

Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem also called on regional and international authorities to curb Israel’s “aggression.”

The tense day began at 9 a.m., with a rocket attack fired from the northern Gaza Strip that struck an open field in the Hof Ashkelon region, just south of the coastal city of Ashkelon, causing no injuries or damage.

Within minutes of the rocket impact, an IDF tank fired at and destroyed a Hamas position in the northwestern Gaza Strip, the army said.

A few hours later, Israeli aircraft struck three more Hamas sites.

According to the Palestinian al-Quds media outlet, one of the Hamas positions hit in the airstrikes was a naval base in the northwestern Gaza Strip.

Palestinians in the Strip took to social media, posting pictures and videos of the Israeli airstrikes.

Soon after the airstrikes, Israeli troops reported they came under fire along the security fence near the Israeli Kissufim community, prompting an IDF tank to shell a Hamas site in the central Strip.

In addition, on Monday afternoon a Palestinian man was spotted crossing into Israel from Gaza. He was arrested by IDF troops a few hours later, in possession of a knife and a screwdriver, the army said.

Earlier on Monday morning, Palestinian media reported that four Israeli engineering vehicles had crossed the border fence and cleared the buffer zone surrounding the Gaza Strip of obstructions.

Following the 2014 Gaza war, the rocket fire directed towards Israel from the Strip has dwindled to, on average, one or two missiles per month.

These have been launched mostly by radical salafist groups, not by Hamas. However, Israel sees the Sunni terrorist group, which has ruled the Strip for the past 10 years, as ultimately responsible for any rocket fire emanating from the Gaza Strip.

In recent months, the IDF — under the direction of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman — has adopted a harsher policy towards that sporadic rocket fire.

The hawkish Liberman has promised that Israel will respond aggressively to rocket attacks, in order to force Hamas to rein in the more extreme groups in the Gaza Strip. On at least two occasions, the IDF carried out dozens of airstrikes on Hamas positions in response to rocket fire from Gaza.

In a sense, these Palestinian attacks present the army with an opportunity. In its retaliations, the IDF is able to target key Hamas infrastructure, which it otherwise might not have attacked.

Monday morning’s rocket alert siren sounded in Zikim and Karmiya, in the Hof Ashkelon region, sending residents scurrying for shelter.

Army spokesman Lerner said the sirens “disrupted the daily lives of Israelis.”

“The IDF will not tolerate rocket fire toward civilians and will continue to ensure security and stability in the region,” he said in a statement.

Palestinians run for cover as smoke rises following an Israeli air strike on a Hamas post, in the northern Gaza Strip on February 6, 2017. (AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED ABED)
Palestinians run for cover as smoke rises following an Israeli air strike on a Hamas post, in the northern Gaza Strip on February 6, 2017. (AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED ABED)

The rocket strike from Gaza came two days after a top explosives expert for Hamas’s armed wing was killed in a mysterious explosion.

Last month, the incoming rocket alert system went off in the communities of Ein Hashlosha and Nirim, but it was later found to have been a false alarm.

Dov Lieber and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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