IDF adds Iron Dome batteries, preps for longer-range attacks

Sirens triggered in Ashkelon as rocket attacks go deeper into Israel

Fresh barrage sends tens of thousands of Israelis into bomb shelters; Hamas named pregnant woman and daughter said killed in IDF strike; Israel says it only targets military sites

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

A police officer inspects the damage to a construction site in the southern Israeli town of Sderot near the Gaza border following a rocket hit, on August 9, 2018. (Israel Police)
A police officer inspects the damage to a construction site in the southern Israeli town of Sderot near the Gaza border following a rocket hit, on August 9, 2018. (Israel Police)

A fresh wave of incoming rocket sirens sounded throughout southern Israel on Thursday morning, including in the coastal city of Ashkelon, as rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip penetrated deeper into Israeli territory.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage from the latest attack.

Residents of southern Israel reported hearing explosions and seeing signs that the Iron Dome missile defense system had been used to intercept incoming projectiles.

Throughout Wednesday night and the predawn hours of Thursday morning, nearly 200 rockets and mortar shells were fired at southern Israeli communities by Hamas, which rules Gaza, and other terrorist groups in the coastal enclave, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Most of the rockets hit open fields, causing no damage. The Iron Dome, which targets only missiles projected to strike communities, destroyed 25 of the incoming rockets, the army said.

In response to the attacks, the Israeli Air Force targeted upwards of 100 “terror sites” in the Gaza Strip, including tunnels and weapons manufacturing facilities, the IDF said.

One woman was seriously injured early Thursday morning when a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip hit her home in the Eshkol region of southern Israel, just outside the Palestinian enclave.

The woman was a 30-year-old foreign worker from Thailand. She suffered injuries to her abdomen and limbs. Another person was lightly injured, and several were treated after they suffered panic attacks.

Throughout the night, rockets struck homes and factories in Israeli communities, causing damage. One barrage that slammed into the city of Sderot Wednesday evening injured three Israelis. At least eight others were treated for panic attacks, including two pregnant women who went into premature labor.

The military said its retaliatory raids targeted training compounds as well as weapons manufacturing facilities and storage warehouses. The air force also targeted one car that the army said was being used by terrorists to launch rockets at southern Israel from the Strip. One Hamas operative was reportedly killed in the airstrike. Unconfirmed reports claimed he was the relative of a senior Hamas commander.

Hamas said a pregnant woman and her infant daughter were killed in another strike.

The Hamas-run health ministry named the woman as Aynas Abu Khamash, 23, and her daughter, 18-months-old, as Bayan. According to Ashraf al-Qidra, a spokesman for the ministry, they were killed in an Israeli strike on the central Gaza Strip early Thursday morning. Mohammed Abu Khamash, Aynas’s husband, was seriously injured in the strike, he said.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the IDF, said he could not comment on the specific case of the Abu Khamash family, but stressed that the army targeted “only military sites” in its raids.

Arab 48, an Arab-Israeli news site, which spoke with members of the Abu Khamash family, said the family’s home is located in rural Gaza and four kilometers from the border fence between the Strip and Israel. There are a number of military sites which belong to armed groups in Gaza near the border. The report did not say if the Abu Khamash home was located adjacent to a military site.

Following the attacks from Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman met overnight with senior officers from the IDF and other security services at the military’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, to discuss the situation and decide on a course of action.

According to the Haaretz newspaper, the military was deploying additional Iron Dome batteries in the region in preparation for Hamas possibly increasing the range of its targets. During past wars rockets have reached as far as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Beersheba.

Sirens sounded regularly in southern Israeli communities throughout the night, and thousands of families slept in bomb shelters and protected spaces.

Israel Police officers search for pieces of rockets that were fired from the Gaza Strip and struck the southern Israeli town of Sderot on August 8, 2018. (Israel Police)

Overnight six rockets exploded in Sderot, including two that hit homes and one that hit a factory. Another hit a house in the Hof Asheklon regional council. In all cases the rockets caused damage but no casualties. In addition, a rocket hit a factory in the Sha’ar Hanegev region, breaking through the roof and damaging equipment inside, a spokesperson for the region said. The factory was empty of people at the time of the rocket attack.

Hamas claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attacks, saying it was avenging the deaths of two operatives killed in an Israeli strike the day before — a strike that came in response to what the IDF initially identified as a shooting attack on its forces, but which was apparently an internal Hamas exercise.

“In response to Israel aggression, the Palestinian resistance has launched a large number of rockets in recent hours at the enemy,” a statement by the group said. “There was a promise [to respond] and now it has been fulfilled.”

The United Nations condemned the Hamas rocket fire.

Nikolay Mladenov, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, speaks during a press conference at the UNESCO headquarters in Gaza City, September 25, 2017. (AFP/MOHAMMED ABED)

“I am deeply alarmed by the recent escalation of violence between Gaza and Israel, and particularly by today’s multiple rockets fired towards communities in southern Israel,” UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov said in a statement.

He called on all sides to step “back from the brink” and restore calm.

“If the current escalation…is not contained immediately, the situation can rapidly deteriorate with devastating consequences for all people.”

US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt also condemned Hamas in a tweet. “Another night of terror & families huddling in fear as Israel defends itself,” he said.

“This is the Hamas regime’s choice. Hamas is subjecting people to the terrifying conditions of war again.”

According to the military, among the Hamas positions bombed by the fighter jets was a factory where the terror groups constructs the concrete blocks it uses for attack tunnels and a fully operational tunnel opening near the Gaza coast belonging to Hamas’s naval commando unit.

An IDF aircraft also targeted a car that the military said was being used by a terror cell launching rockets at Israel.

One Palestinian man was reportedly killed in the strike, 30-year-old Hamas operative Ali al-Ghandour was killed, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry.

A Palestinian toddler and her pregnant mother were killed in another strike, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Enas Khammash, 23, and her 18-month daughter Bayan were killed in an airstrike in Jafarawi in central Gaza, the ministry said. The husband was moderately injured.

At least six other Palestinians were injured as a result of the IDF strikes, according to the ministry.

The Israeli military said the terror group, with which it was fought three wars in the past decade, would bear the consequences of any further violence from the Gaza Strip.

An aerial photograph distributed by the Israeli military showing what it says is the opening to a tunnel opening along the Gaza coast belonging to the Hamas terror group’s naval commando unit, which the IDF bombed on August 8, 2018, in response to rocket attacks from the Strip. (Israel Defense Forces)

“The IDF sees with severity the terrorist activities of Hamas. The IDF is prepared for a variety of scenarios and is determined to fulfill its mission of defending the citizens of Israel,” the army said in a statement.

Residents of southern Israel were told to remain close to bomb shelters in case of additional rockets or mortar shells from Gaza.

The rocket attacks came amid a period of heightened tensions along the Gaza border, following months of clashes and exchanges of fire. On Tuesday, Hamas vowed to avenge the deaths of two of its members killed by IDF tank fire after the army mistakenly thought a military exercise had been a cross-border attack.

A police sapper searches the yard of a house the southern Israeli town of Sderot that was hit by a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip on August 8, 2018. (Israel Police)

On Wednesday afternoon, the military warned that it was anticipating a revenge attack by Hamas after spotting members of the terror group evacuating posts likely to be targeted by Israel in reprisal raids.

Hours later, shots were fired from the northern Gaza Strip at a number of civilian construction vehicles along the border, damaging one of them, the army said.

Damage to a construction vehicle outside the Gaza Strip, which the military says was caused by gunfire from the Palestinian enclave, on August 8, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

In response, an IDF tank shelled a nearby Hamas observation post.

Wednesday’s rocket fire represented a major uptick in tensions along the border, amid intensive talks between Israel and Hamas for a long-term ceasefire.

Such an agreement is meant to end not only rocket launches and shootings from Gaza but also the regular incendiary kite and balloon attacks from the Palestinian enclave that have burned large swaths of land in southern Israel and caused millions of shekels of damage.

Throughout Wednesday, at least 11 fires were sparked in southern Israel by airborne arson devices launched from the Gaza Strip. Israeli firefighters extinguished all of them, according to a spokesperson for Fire and Rescue Services.

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

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