WASHINGTON — The United States condemned the Hamas terror group on Thursday for launching some 180 rockets and mortar shells at Israeli population centers and defended Israel’s military response in the worst exchange of fire since the 2014 war.
The State Department’s undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs Heather Nauert told reporters that Israel was justified in responding with force to Hamas projectiles targeting Israeli towns and cities.
“It’s a very concerning situation,” she said. “We condemn the launching of missile attacks into Israel and call for an end to the destructive violence,” she said. “We fully support Israel’s right to defend itself and to take actions to prevent provocations of that nature.”
Hamas fired dozens of rockets and mortar shells into southern Israeli communities from the Gaza Strip on Wednesday night and into Thursday, including one barrage that slammed into the town of Sderot, and another at Beersheba, marking the first time the city had been targeted since 2014’s 51-day war.
The Israeli Air Force promptly responded, bombing at least 12 Hamas positions across the Gaza Strip, the military said.
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 Palestinian woman and her toddler were killed in an Israeli strike earlier Thursday. 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.
Nauert on Thursday also blamed Hamas for the dire situation in the battered coastal enclave.
“Let’s not forget that Hamas bears ultimate responsibility for the humanitarian situation in Gaza,” she said. “It’s a tremendous concern of ours.”
Hamas said Thursday night that a ceasefire has been reached to end the nearly two days of intense fighting with Israel, even as the high-level security cabinet on Thursday instructed the IDF to “continue acting forcefully” against the terror groups in Gaza.
Hamas’ Al-Aqsa TV channel reported late Thursday that a ceasefire had taken hold “on the basis of mutual calm.” It said the deal was mediated by Egypt and other regional players.
Israel denied a ceasefire had been reached, but a senior Israeli official told Israel Radio that quiet would be met with quiet.
Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.