Gaza rockets hit deeper, but Israel still limiting its response

Despite talk of ceasefire, Iron Dome intercepts Kassams aimed at Ofakim and Netivot Friday afternoon, the farthest-reaching attacks in recent days

Iron Dome missile defense batteries near the southern town of Ashdod. File photo (Photo credit: Flash90)
Iron Dome missile defense batteries near the southern town of Ashdod. File photo (Photo credit: Flash90)

Despite talk of an imminent ceasefire, four rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel Friday afternoon, with three apparently targeting the towns of Ofakim and Netivot southeast of Sderot, as Gaza militants increased the range of their attacks.

One of the rockets hit a kibbutz in the Eshkol Region, causing some damage to a house. Two others were intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system and one hit an open field. No injuries were reported in the attacks.

Walla news reported that 14 rockets and mortar shells had been fired into Israel by Friday afternoon. Israeli response to the attacks was limited, with one air strike reported on suspected Gaza launch sites in the morning. Israel was apparently waiting to see whether Hamas would curb the rocket-fire as reports proliferated of an impending ceasefire agreement.

But while the Israeli government appeared interested in such an arrangement, not all of its members seemed to agree that restoring calm was the best course of action.

“The idea that ‘quiet will be answered with quiet’ is a serious mistake,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said on a visit to Sderot on Friday, adding that he believed Israel must now strike Hamas hard.

“It cannot be that after the kidnapping and murder of three teenagers and two consecutive weeks of rockets fall, the approach of Israel will be ‘quiet is answered with quiet,'” he said. “There can not be an agreement with Hamas. Ignoring the problem or being afraid to deal with it will lead us to a situation in which thousands of missiles are fired at us, not hundreds.

“We cannot to accept a situation in which Hamas controls the pace of events and dictates when it flares up the region, and all we do is respond,” he added.

Sirens had wailed in Israel’s southern city of Sderot, the Eshkol Region, Sdot Negev and the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council, warning of incoming rocket fire from Gaza, from early in the morning. Five rockets were launched at Israel in the morning, with one landing in Palestinian territory. No injuries or damage were reported as the projectiles struck open areas. In addition, two mortar shells from Gaza exploded near the Eshkol regional council buildings. No injuries or damage were reported.

On Friday morning Egyptian and Palestinian sources confirmed to The Times of Israel that a ceasefire was set to be declared between Israel and Hamas, but the exact timing has yet to be set. The truce was mediated by Egyptian intelligence officials, as has been the case in similar negotiations in the past.

According to the sources, the understanding that the Egyptians reached with Israel and Hamas is that “quiet will be met with quiet.”

“Neither side is interested in an escalation,” the sources told The Times of Israel.

The sources also reported that the Egyptians passed messages from Israel to the deputy head of Hamas’s political desk, Moussa Abu Marzouk, based in Cairo. Israeli sources said they were waiting for an answer from Hamas. “The ball is in Hamas’s court,” an official told the Ynet news site.

Commentators in Gaza attributed the escalation in rocket fire over the past 48 hours to the feeling in Hamas that Israel is looking to avoid a fight, and that a cease-fire is impending.

According to the commentators, Hamas is trying to achieve a public relations victory in the eyes of the Gaza public, to be seen as unafraid of an escalation. But, they said, Hamas is itself uninterested in a deterioration into a larger conflict.

Over 15 rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip Thursday evening, leaving one soldier lightly injured. As the southern border continued to heat up Thursday, with intermittent rocket fire striking southern Israel, residents were advised to stay within 15 seconds of bomb shelters.

Israel on Thursday reportedly issued a 48-hour ultimatum to Hamas in Gaza to halt the incessant fire or face a massive Israeli strike. The ultimatum was conveyed to Hamas leaders via Egyptian intelligence, they said.

An hour before the Thursday evening rocket barrage, Hamas said that in the event of an escalation, Israel would “be surprised” by its rocket arsenal and range.

“We promise that one stupid move your leaders make will constitute sufficient ground to turn all of your towns, even those you wouldn’t expect, into targets and burning cinders,” said Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s armed wing. Israel may initiate the escalation, “but it doesn’t know how it will continue and how it will end,” he said.

“The threats the occupiers issue, and the allusions to war against Gaza, are threats that have no meaning in our dictionaries, other than drawing the hour of vengeance and difficult lesson-learning closer,” Ubaida added.

He said that Israel’s move to rearrest — during an 18-day operation to find three kidnapped Israeli teens (their bodies were found in the West Bank earlier this week) — prisoners released during the 2011 swap for IDF soldier Gilad Shalit “crossed a line and we won’t be silent about it.”

The IDF beefed up its ground forces around the Gaza Strip on Thursday, as tensions continued to rise along the southern border region; and in East Jerusalem, where the recent killing of a Muslim teenager, in an alleged revenge attack over the killings of the Israeli teens, triggered widespread riots on Wednesday.

But the move came in conjunction with unusually soothing messages from the army. “We want to deescalate the situation and restore calm,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, who described the deployment as defensive in nature.

The region has been increasingly tense since the June 12 kidnapping of the three Israeli teens and the onset of the holy month of Ramadan.

Hamas, which has apparently taken part in the rocket fire recently for the first time since 2012, failed in its attempt to kidnap and trade the Israeli youths for Palestinian prisoners, Lerner said, and therefore has been “pushed into a corner.”

In the West Bank, he added, the army’s current strategy comprises three main components: finding those responsible for the killing of Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel; finding those who killed Muhammed Abu Khdeir, the 16-year-old youth who was abducted from his hometown of Beit Hanina on Wednesday; and avoiding violence on the first Friday of Ramadan.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, in advance of Friday’s mass prayer gatherings, has instructed all Central Command troops to “limit points of friction,” Lerner said.

Israel’s cabinet, meanwhile, has remained mum on possible anti-Hamas operations in the wake of the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teens by Hebron-based Hamas members.

Whether or not a larger IDF operation is imminent, the build-up is a message to Hamas — under pressure from the shuttering of its border with Egypt, a multi-year siege on its Israeli border and a collapsing economy in the Strip — that escalation could spell significant damage for Gaza and its rulers.

Rocket fire from Gaza damaged two buildings in Sderot on Thursday morning. No injuries were reported. One of the rockets hit the side of a building that houses a preschool, but did not explode. The area was closed off to passersby, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld tweeted on Thursday morning, as police sappers removed the unexploded warhead.

Israel’s Iron Dome system shot down two rockets fired from Gaza in the direction of the southern town of Netivot early Thursday morning.

Lazar Berman and Marissa Newman contributed to this report.

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