Local councils in southern Israel announce return to normal after hours of calm

Israelis living near Gaza had awoken to uncertainty after rockets violated ceasefire throughout Thursday and IDF retaliated with air strikes; schools in region shut Friday

An Iron Dome battery in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on November 13, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
An Iron Dome battery in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on November 13, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Following a quiet morning and over 14 hours since the last rocket was fired at Israel, local councils in the Gaza periphery on Friday announced they planned to open schools Sunday, marking a full return to normal for the region.

Residents of southern Israel faced an unsure morning following a siren-free night — but with the very real prospect of fresh alarms after a day of rocket attacks and Israeli retaliatory strikes despite a supposed ceasefire.

On Thursday evening, the local governments throughout the region, including in Ashkelon, Sderot, Netivot and communities adjacent to the Strip, said they were removing all the safety precautions put in place during the fighting this week, except for the reopening of schools amid fears of renewed barrages from the territory.

In their Friday announcement, the councils said they were preparing to open schools as usual on Sunday.

The Israel Defense Forces said it launched fresh airstrikes on Islamic Jihad targets in the Gaza Strip in the predawn hours of Friday morning, in response to four rocket attacks from the coastal enclave Thursday which violated a ceasefire agreement announced the day before.

Palestinian media reported that Israeli drones and fighter jets conducted strikes on Islamic Jihad facilities in the cities of Khan Younis and Rafah in the southern Strip. Palestinian media reported that at least two people were injured in the Israeli strikes.

File: View of the southern town of Sderot (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Thursday saw four instances of rockets fired into Israel, including two at around 10 p.m. which were shot down by the Iron Dome air defense system. There were no injuries in the attacks, though in one case pieces of a projectile landed in the yard of a daycare in Netivot.

Throughout Thursday, Israel abided by the Egypt- and UN-brokered ceasefire and refrained from launching retaliatory strikes until after the fourth attack.

It was not immediately clear who fired the rockets. Some members of Islamic Jihad were reportedly opposed to the truce announced early Thursday morning, leading to speculation by analysts that they would fire rockets at Israel in order to derail it.

An explosion caused by Israeli airstrikes is seen in Gaza City, November 14, 2019. (Adel Hana/AP)

From predawn Tuesday to Thursday morning, Israel and Islamic Jihad fought a 48-hour battle in which over 450 rockets and mortar shells were fired at Israel from Gaza, and the IDF responded with dozens of airstrikes on Islamic Jihad facilities and on the terror cells as they were firing and preparing to launch rockets.

Palestinian sources said 34 Gazans were killed. Israel said the overwhelming majority of the fatalities were terrorists, but human rights officials said 16 civilians were among the dead.

Fifty-eight Israelis were lightly and moderately injured or treated for shock.

Most of the rockets from Gaza either landed in open fields or were intercepted by Israeli air defenses. Some struck homes, businesses and streets, causing injuries and significant property damage. Dozens of people were also hurt as they fell running to bomb shelters.

In response to the attacks, the Israeli military conducted dozens of strikes on Islamic Jihad bases and weapons facilities, as well as rocket-launching teams throughout the Strip, killing 25 terrorists, according to the IDF.

An Israeli interception missile from the Iron Dome defense system is fired above the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on November 13, 2019, to intercept incoming short-range rockets launched from the Palestinian Gaza Strip. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

Other Palestinians killed in Israeli strikes included a Palestinian father, Mahmoud Ayad, 54, and his two sons — Islam, 7, and Amir, 24 — who were killed in an Israeli airstrike in what appeared to be a case of mistaken identity, as residents of the Gaza Strip denied that they were involved with terrorist activities. In addition, eight people, including two women and four children, who were reportedly family members of a senior Islamic Jihad operative, were killed in an Israeli strike.

The flare-up started after an Israeli missile killed Baha Abu al-Ata, a senior commander in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, whom Israel said was the “prime instigator” of terrorism from Gaza over the past year.

In this photo taken on October 21, 2016, Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror leader Baha Abu al-Ata attends a rally in Gaza City. (STR/AFP)

On Thursday night Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Shin Bet security service’s war room in central Israel that directed the hit on Ata, commending the agents for their “daring” work in the operation.

Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi, the head of the Israeli military’s Southern Command, warned Gaza-area residents Thursday that the rocket fire might continue even with the ceasefire agreement in place.

The general said the IDF would be working to thwart these attacks. “If we identity launch efforts, we will strike the cells,” Halevi said.

Other Israeli leaders have warned they would not hesitate to return to battle.

Islamic Jihad’s military wing also threatened Israel that it was ready to continue fighting.

“Our fighters in all of our military units still have their fingers on the trigger,” the Al-Quds Brigade said in a statement, unveiling what it said was a new rocket used in the fighting — the Buraq 120.

Islamic Jihad said the cease-fire went into effect at 5:30 a.m. Thursday and claimed it was based on three conditions: an end to targeted killings, a halt in Israeli shootings of protesters at weekly demonstrations along the Israeli frontier and easing a 12-year Israeli blockade that has devastated Gaza’s economy. Israeli officials insisted they had made no concessions.

Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas violently seized control of Gaza from the internationally backed Palestinian Authority. Israel says it did do to prevent Gaza’s terrorists from arming themselves.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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