Army chief cancels planned US trip because of unrest

Schools open along Gaza border after night of relative calm

IDF lifts restrictions on southern Israel’s residents after Palestinian terrorists launch 40 rockets over weekend; army doesn’t respond to 2 projectiles fired early Saturday night

Israeli boys examine the site where a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed in Israel, April 24, 2021 (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
Israeli boys examine the site where a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed in Israel, April 24, 2021 (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Schools opened as normal in the Gaza-adjacent Sha’ar Hanegev region of southern Israel on Sunday morning, after several hours passed without rocket fire following a weekend in which terrorists in the Strip launched more than 40 projectiles at the region, the local government said.

Despite the uneasy calm, Israel Defense Forces chief Aviv Kohavi canceled a trip to the United States that was planned for Sunday, the military said.

Kohavi had initially postponed his visit, but the IDF said that “in light of a situational assessment and in order to prepare for possible developments,” he had decided to call off the trip entirely. The other generals that were meant to take part in the delegation, including Military Intelligence chief Tamir Hayman and the head of the Iran-focused Strategic and Third-Ring Directorate Tal Kalmn, still planned to make the trip to the US on Sunday evening, the military said.

The first round of attacks began late Friday night and continued into the predawn hours of Saturday morning, with some 36 rockets fired at Israeli cities and towns near the border, several of which landed inside communities, causing damage but no injuries. Six were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, while the rest struck open fields. In response, the Israel Defense Forces conducted limited airstrikes on sites connected to the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group.

Following an uneasy calm through the following day, the rocket launches resumed at 9 p.m. on Saturday with an attack on the town of Sderot that was intercepted by the Iron Dome.

Two more projectiles were fired toward southern Israel on Saturday night, one of which struck an open field while the other landed within the Strip, close to the security fence. Palestinian media reported that terror groups in the enclave launched a number of other projectiles that also fell inside Gaza, which did not trigger sirens in Israel.

A 21-year-old from Sderot sustained a head injury while running to a shelter during a rocket siren. He was treated at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, where his condition was stable. Additionally, an 18-year-old woman suffered an acute anxiety attack because of the alarms and was treated at the same hospital, the medical center said.

The IDF did not conduct retaliatory raids in response to the Saturday night attacks in an apparent bid to stave off further violence. Though not unprecedented, this was a relatively uncommon decision by the military, which tends to retaliate harshly to such attacks.

Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade claimed responsibility for some of the rocket attacks on Friday night, while the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s Abu Ali Mustapha Brigades took credit for attacks on both Friday night and Saturday night.

Israel, however, formally holds the Hamas terror group responsible for all attacks from the Strip, seeing it as ultimately responsible for what goes on in the enclave.

The Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and Abu Ali Mustapha Brigades tied the rocket launches to the ongoing unrest in Jerusalem, where Arab residents of the capital have repeatedly clashed with police and attacked Jewish Israelis, and where Israeli far-right nationalists have staged violent, racist protests.

Following the Friday night attacks, the military issued a number of safety instructions to residents of southern Israel, keeping people away from the border and limiting the sizes of crowds. The military removed these restrictions later on Saturday morning.

Despite the rocket fire on Saturday night, the military opted to not reimpose these limitations, allowing schools and businesses to reopen as usual on Sunday morning.

“Following a situational assessment by military officials and the regional council, it was decided that at this stage there will be no special instructions in our area,” the Sha’ar Hanegev region told residents.

The regional council added that anyone requiring mental health assistance should reach out to social workers in their community.

Men stand in front of a building baring traces of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, in the kibbutz Kissufim in southern Israel, adjacent to the Palestinian enclave, on April 24, 2021 (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

On Saturday afternoon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the military to “prepare for any scenario” with Gaza. Defense Minister Benny Gantz similarly said that the Israel Defense Forces “will do what is necessary so the calm is preserved,” following security consultations at defense headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Israel and Hamas have maintained an uneasy ceasefire over the past year, with Jerusalem allowing additional international investment and assistance to the beleaguered enclave in exchange for calm by terror groups in the Strip.

The prime minister also said they were briefed by police chief Kobi Shabtai on the recent ethnic violence in Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

FILE: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi at a press conference after a security cabinet meeting following the escalation of violence in the Gaza Strip, at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, on November 12, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“First of all, we want to ensure law and order. We are safeguarding freedom of worship like every year [for Ramadan], for all residents and for all visitors in Jerusalem,” he said in a statement.

“Right now we are demanding compliance with the law and I call for calm on all sides,” the premier added, apparently referring to both Palestinians who have been clashing with police and violent skirmishes involving Jewish extremists.

There have been nightly disturbances in Jerusalem since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on April 13, amid Palestinian anger over police blocking off access to a square surrounded by broad steps outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate, where, in an unofficial Jerusalem tradition, thousands of Palestinians would congregate following nighttime prayers during Ramadan.

Fresh scuffles between Israeli police and Palestinians broke out in that area on Saturday night. Hundreds of Palestinians also marched toward Israeli checkpoints across the West Bank in solidarity with East Jerusalem Palestinians, leading to confrontations.

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