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Hamas miscalculated extent of Israeli response -- IDF chief

Southern communities pounded by Gaza rockets; PM: Fighting will take more time

Several buildings, cars damaged but no injuries; Hamas says afternoon barrage was retaliation for Israeli strike in which 41 said killed; Netanyahu touts US backing for operation

Fire service officials outside an Ashkelon synagogue hit by a rocket, May 16, 2021 (National Fire and Rescue Authority)
Fire service officials outside an Ashkelon synagogue hit by a rocket, May 16, 2021 (National Fire and Rescue Authority)

Southern Israel was bombarded by rockets fired by Palestinian terrorists in Gaza on Sunday afternoon and evening, causing damage in numerous communities but no injuries, as the Israeli military struck Hamas-linked targets in the coastal enclave.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the fighting in the Gaza Strip — now in its seventh day — would “take more time” and touted the support from the United States and other countries.

The heavy barrage in the afternoon, which came before the start of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot at nightfall, set off warning sirens in large parts of the south, including the cities of Beersheba, Ashdod and Ashkelon.

The Israel Fire and Rescue Services said its emergency teams were operating at several sites in Beersheba and Ashkelon where homes and cars were struck.

Israeli security forces at a home in Ashdod that was hit by a rocket fired by Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip, May 16, 2021. (Flash90)

Among the buildings hit by a rocket or shrapnel were the Yad Michael synagogue in Ashkelon. Photographs from the scene showed a large amount of smoke and dust rising from the building, and parts of a rocket in the building.

People clean up inside a damaged synagogue in Ashkelon, following a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip, on May 16, 2021. (Avi Roccah/Flash90)

Ashkelon residents swiftly cleaned up the synagogue, with little apparent remaining damage besides the large hole in the wall where the rocket struck, according to footage aired by Channel 12 news.

People clean up inside a synagogue in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon was hit by a rocket fired by Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip, May 16, 2021. (Avi Roccah/Flash90)

A rocket also hit a building in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, near the Gaza border. The building, a youth center, was empty at the time, and while it suffered heavy damage, there were no injuries, the regional council said.

The strike also damaged a power line, cutting electricity to part of the kibbutz.

Rocket sirens continued to sound into the evening in numerous communities near Gaza, including the city of Netivot.

Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, said the afternoon barrage was in response to an Israeli airstrike overnight that was said to kill at least 41 Palestinians in Gaza. The IDF has yet to comment on the strike.

The attack was also in response to alleged police brutality against demonstrators in Sheikh Jarrah, according to an al-Qassam Brigades spokesperson, an East Jerusalem neighborhood where there have been recent tensions over the pending eviction of several Palestinian families there from homes claimed by nationalist Jews.

“The Al-Qassam Brigades are now launching large missile barrages… in response to the heinous massacre of children, women and civilians in Gaza City, and the attack on the people of Sheikh Jarrah and those in solidarity with them,” the spokesperson said.

According to the Israel Defense Forces, some 190 rockets were fired toward Israel since 7 a.m. on Sunday, 20 of which failed to clear the border and landed in Gaza. It said “many dozens” of rockets were intercepted, without specifying the number.

Amid the rocket fire, the Israel Defense Forces said it was continuing to strike sites in Gaza, including on Hamas operatives involved in firing mortar and rockets, weapons dumps and an anti-tank missile position, among other targets.

It also said it struck the main offices of Hamas’s internal security services and a subterranean rocket launch site belonging to Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Meanwhile, a diplomatic source said a possible ceasefire was not discussed at a meeting of the high-level security cabinet on Sunday.

The source was also quoted by Ynet news predicting that the fighting would end this week. However, Channel 12 news reported on a security source saying the current round of hostilities was nearing its end and that Israel was “entering a critical 24-hour period.”

There was no official comment from authorities on the meeting.

Speaking after the meeting and following consultations with security chiefs, Netanyahu said Operation Guardian of the Walls was “continuing at full strength.” He said over 1,000 targets have been struck in Gaza, exacting a serious toll on Hamas, including their underground assets, which he described as having suffered a serious, but not complete, blow.

“No terrorist is immune,” he threatened during a televised statement at the Kirya military headquarters, noting the IDF has also taken out “terror towers,” referring to high-rise buildings leveled by Israeli airstrikes.

He added that the military was doing what it could to keep civilian casualties to a minimum.

“This will take time. There is pressure but we are getting serious backing, foremost from the US,” he said. “We have international backing and we are using it.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a May 16, 2021 press conference (Screenshot)

Speaking after Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the military was continuing to hit Gazan terrorists, stressing the army’s accomplishments. He said the goal was long-term calm and the bolstering of moderate forces.

Following Gantz, IDF Chief Aviv Kohavi said “Hamas made a serious mistake and did not calculate us correctly,” noting all the damage that the army has inflicted on the terror group’s capabilities, particularly its underground infrastructure.

IDF Chief of staff Aviv Kohavi at a May 16, 2021 press conference (Screenshot)

Kohavi said the IDF had “heavily damaged Hamas’s underground capabilities. This was their flagship project.” Hamas missile production capabilities had also been badly hit,” he said. Nonetheless, Kohavi acknowledged, “the heavy fire on the homefront continues. We are aware of this… and we are doing everything to make our air defenses more effective.”

The three spoke as the United Nations Security Council convened to discuss the hostilities, with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calling for an immediate halt to the fighting.

Despite Netanyahu suggesting the fighting was not winding down and touting the support of the US, senior Israeli officials told the Walla news site earlier Sunday that the calls by US President Joe Biden and other major American figures were being heard and that Israel would start moving toward a ceasefire now that a number of military objectives had been achieved against Hamas, as well as in response to the growing international pressure.

The anonymous officials said that as with previous agreements between Israel and the Gaza terror groups, the ceasefire would be mediated by Egypt.

According to the IDF, Israel has faced the highest ever rate of rocket attacks on its territory during its latest confrontation with Hamas. Since Monday, armed groups in Gaza have fired about 3,000 rockets toward Israel, surpassing the pace during an escalation of violence in 2019 and during the 2006 war with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, said Maj. Gen. Ori Gordin.

Gordin, commander of Israel’s home front, presented a graphic to reporters with data of rockets fired toward Israel in past years and now.

Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system intercepts rockets above the coastal city of Tel Aviv on May 15, 2021, following their launching from the Gaza Strip (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP)

During an escalation of violence in November 2019 between the army and the Islamic Jihad group, 570 rockets were fired from Gaza towards Israel over three days.

And in the 2006 war with the Iran-backed Hezbollah, a total of 4,500 rockets were fired at Israel over 19 days, according to the data Gordin shared with reporters.

Asked if the pace since Monday was the highest ever rate of rocket attacks on Israeli territory, Gordin said: “Not only do I agree, this is what I present.”

Ten Israelis, including a 5-year-old boy and 16-year-old girl, have been killed in the rocket fire, and hundreds have been injured.

The most recent casualty was on Saturday afternoon when a man was killed by a projectile that struck the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan. According to Channel 12 news, the man did not have a protected area in his home and was unable to reach a bomb shelter in time. The outlet said shrapnel from the rocket pierced the door to the man’s home.

The Palestinian toll from the fighting reached 197 on Sunday, including dozens of minors, with over 1,200 wounded, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, though Israel says that number is much higher and that dozens of those killed were terrorists. In addition, the IDF says some deaths were caused by errant rockets fired at Israel which fell short of their targets and landed in the Strip.

In a televised statement on Saturday night, Netanyahu defended Israel’s military operation in Gaza and said the fighting would continue for several more days. He warned terror leaders: “You can’t hide, not above land or below it. No one is immune.”

AFP contributed to this report.

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