Three Israeli soldiers were wounded by shrapnel Tuesday during afternoon barrages of mortar shells and rockets launched into Israel from the Gaza Strip, in the worst flareup of cross-border violence since the 2014 Gaza war.
Earlier in the day a civilian was lightly wounded by shrapnel from projectile fire, bringing the total number of injured to four.
Tuesday saw at least 60 rockets and mortar shells launched into Israel from Gaza, as well as dozens of retaliatory strikes by the IDF against terror targets in the Strip, capping weeks of soaring tensions in the region stemming from weekly protests on the border. In an early morning mortar shell barrage, one shell exploded in the yard of a kindergarten shortly before children arrived.
Officials said they expected the round of fighting to continue into the night at least, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened an emergency meeting with top defense brass.
The three soldiers were hit by shrapnel from projectile attacks, apparently in separate incidents.
One of the wounded was in moderate condition with injuries to his extremities, while the two others suffered light injuries only and were later released, authorities said.
The three were flown by helicopter from Kibbutz Sufa near the Gaza border to Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center.
Two more people were lightly injured in Sderot Tuesday afternoon while running to shelters as rocket sirens blared.
Medics from the United Hatzalah rescue service said they treated at least 10 people in communities of the Gaza periphery for anxiety.
Police and the army called on the public in the Gaza periphery to remain near shelters and safe rooms. They warned civilians to stay away from rocket and mortar impact sites and to call authorities to deal with the ordnance.
Netanyahu was meeting Tuesday evening with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, and the head of the Shin Bet security agency Nadav Argaman to discuss the escalation in the south.
Meanwhile Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz told Army Radio the cross-border violence could potentially intensify towards the evening. He said Israel was closer to war than it had been since 2014, when the country fought a punishing 50 day war with Gaza-led fighters that the enclave has yet to recover from.
“We don’t want war and neither do they, but we have our red lines,” Katz said.
Rocket sirens continued to blare into Tuesday evening, capping a day that saw several volleys of mortars and missiles shot at communities surrounding the Strip starting Tuesday morning.
Israeli media reported some 60 projectiles had been fired at Israel and a Palestinian website put the number at over 110. There was no official number from military officials.
The military said a total of 25 rockets had been knocked down by Iron Dome missile defense batteries as of 4 p.m., though the tally was not official.
In response to the initial barrages, Israeli planes pounded the Strip Tuesday afternoon. The army said it had struck over 35 terror targets in Gaza throughout the day belonging to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. These included weapons caches, naval targets, and terror headquarters, the IDF said. Hamas identified one of the targets as a training facility.
There were no reports of casualties in the Israeli strikes.
The army also said it struck a Hamas terror tunnel in the Gaza Strip which extended hundreds of meters into Egyptian and Israeli territory. The military said the tunnel crossed from Gaza into Egypt and from there 900 meters into southern Israel, and was intended both for smuggling weapons and for attacks against Israel.
The initial morning barrage of at least 28 mortar shells was claimed by the Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, and came in revenge for the IDF killing three of its members in a cross-border exchange earlier in the week.
No claims of responsibility were made for later volleys. Hebrew media reports said Hamas was responsible for some of them.
In a statement, Islamic Jihad described its attacks as “a blessed response of the resistance,” adding, “our people’s blood is not cheap.”
As a matter of policy, the Israeli army considers Hamas, which rules Gaza, to be responsible for any attack emanating from the beleaguered coastal enclave.
However, IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said Hamas had “lost control” in Gaza, after weeks of attempts to foment violence at the border.
After it “failed” to achieve results through weeks of riots along the border fence, Manelis told Hadashot TV news, Hamas had turned in recent weeks to shooting attacks and bomb attacks at the border.
“And today it allowed Iran-backed [Islamic] Jihad to fire a terrible barrage at the Israeli communities in the Gaza periphery,” he said.
A Hamas spokesperson earlier declared that “Israel will fail in the attempt to change the rules of the conflict and set a new equation on the ground.”
“The resistance in the Gaza Strip reserves its right to react or remain silent in accordance with the interest of our people,” he said.
Netanyahu had vowed earlier to respond “with great force” to the mortar shells, one of which landed just outside a kindergarten less than an hour before children were due to arrive.
Eisenkot later toured the border area and visited projectile impact sites, including the kindergarten. Liberman said the military had launched a “massive and forceful” retaliatory attack.
Perhaps learning a lesson from a flat-footed effort to defend itself in the media during deadly protests along the Gaza border earlier in the month, the Foreign Ministry launched a quick public diplomacy push, instructing ambassadors around the world to stress to local leaders and media that Israel was acting legitimately to defend itself from Gaza-based terrorism.
Ambassadors were also to relay Israeli expectations that attacks from Gaza would receive unequivocal condemnations.
Several foreign officials issued condemnations of Hamas and called for calm.
A Palestinian official in Gaza cited by Haaretz said that terror groups were likely to refrain from responding harshly to the Israeli strikes if there were no fatalities. The source added that Egypt was in talks with Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Israel in an effort to prevent a large-scale confrontation.
Tensions along the Gaza border have soared in recent weeks amidst violent border protests led by Hamas.
Since March 30, tens of thousands of Palestinians have taken part in weekly protests which Israel says are used by the terror group as cover for attempted terror attacks and breaches of the border fence.
Protesters have attacked soldiers at the border with bombs, rocks, and Molotov cocktails, burning tires and repeatedly attempting to sabotage and breach the security fence and infiltrate Israel. They have also launched hundreds of “attack” kites carrying flaming materials over the border to spark blazes in Israeli territory.
The demonstrations came to a head on May 14 when the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem and at least 60 Palestinians were killed in clashes — almost all of them Hamas members, the terror group has acknowledged.
The violent demonstrations were meant to end on May 15, but Hamas leaders have said they want them to continue.
Judah Ari Gross and Michael Bachner contributed to this report.