Palestinian terror groups in the Gaza Strip fired massive barrages of rockets at southern Israel throughout Tuesday, wounding at least 24 people and drawing deadly retaliatory airstrikes from the Israel Defense Forces.
The Hamas terror group claimed at one stage that it fired 137 rockets in around five minutes in a massive barrage that was an apparent attempt to overwhelm the Iron Dome missile defense system. Four people were injured in the barrage, including one critically and another in serious condition.
According to Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry, at least 23 people in the Strip were killed on Monday night and Tuesday, including nine minors. Another 107 Palestinians were injured to varying degrees, the ministry said. The IDF said at least 15 of those killed were members of the Hamas terror group who were launching rockets or anti-tank guided missiles at Israel.
IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said a number of those killed in Gaza, including at least three children, were hit by errant rockets fired by Palestinian terrorists, not by Israeli airstrikes.
Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups reported that several high-ranking commanders were killed in Israeli raids on Tuesday, including two top PIJ leaders in a drone strike on a building in the upscale Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City, one of whom was the brother of another top PIJ commander, Baha Abu al-Ata, who was killed in an Israeli strike in November 2019, kicking off a major round of fighting in the Strip.
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi on Tuesday afternoon gave the military a green light to keep targeting Hamas and PIJ members operating in the Strip and bombing sites connected to the terror groups’ rocket production and storage efforts.
Israel on Tuesday showed no indications that it was interested in an immediate ceasefire, as Zilberman said the fighting was expected to last at least several days and that the coming hours would be particularly punishing for Hamas.
“We have an intense day ahead of us,” Zilberman told reporters on Tuesday morning, adding, “We have a goal and we will not stop until we’ve reached it.”
Soldiers from the IDF’s Golani Infantry Brigade and 7th Armored Brigade were sent to the Gaza border as reinforcements and additional troops were called in to aerial defense, intelligence and air force units, the military said.
“The chief of staff said the IDF will continue to act determinedly in order to return security to residents of the south, and all headquarters should prepare for a wider conflict, which has no time limit,” the IDF said.
Asked about the potential for a ground invasion or targeted killing of top terrorist commanders, Zilberman said the military “was prepared for anything.”
According to the IDF, over 200 rockets and mortar shells were fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel from 6 p.m. Monday to 6 a.m. Tuesday, dozens of which were intercepted by Iron Dome missile defense batteries. The military said the Iron Dome had a successful interception rate of over 90 percent of projectiles heading toward populated areas.
According to Zilberman, roughly a third of the projectiles fired from Gaza landed inside the Strip.
Most of the others landed in open fields, where they caused no injuries, but a small number landed inside Israeli communities, causing damage to nearby buildings and infrastructure. One rocket directly struck a house in the Sha’ar Hanegev region on Monday night, damaging it but not injuring its occupants, and two hit apartment buildings in Ashkelon on Tuesday morning, injuring those inside.
Video footage of the Tuesday morning attack showed dozens of rockets being fired at Ashkelon, with Iron Dome interceptor missiles screaming up into the gray morning sky to try and bring them down.
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Six Israelis were wounded in that attack, four of them members of the same family: parents in their 40s, an 8-year-old and an 11-year old. The father was seriously hurt with a head wound, and the rest sustained light injuries from shrapnel. A 63-year-old man was also moderately injured by shrapnel, and a man and a woman in their 80s were lightly injured, medics said. On Monday, an Israeli man was lightly injured when Palestinian terrorists fired an anti-tank guided missile at his car.
In total, Ashkelon’s Barzilai Medical Center and Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center said they was treating 24 people who were wounded on Monday night and Tuesday morning, 22 of them with light injuries. In addition to those hit by rocket fire, a number of those were hospitalized for injuries sustained while running to bomb shelters, and eight people suffered acute anxiety attacks brought on by rocket sirens, medics said.
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In response to the ongoing rocket rockets, IDF fighter jets, aircraft and tanks struck some 130 targets in the Gaza Strip, most of them associated with Hamas, but also some linked to other terror groups in the enclave, including the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
According to the IDF, they included the home of a top Hamas commander, Hamas’s intelligence headquarters in southern Gaza, two attack tunnels that approached the border with Israel, rocket production and storage sites, observation posts, military installations and launchpads. The IDF said it was also targeting terrorist operatives as they fired rockets at Israel. The military released footage of some of its strikes, including the attack on the Hamas officer’s apartment building (below).
Hamas in Gaza said it had launched the morning attack on Ashkelon in response to the IDF strike on the commander’s apartment building. The terror group said it would “turn Ashkelon into hell” if Israel targeted civilians in Gaza.
Palestinian media also reported strikes around the southern cities of Rafah and Khan Younis and on an apartment building in the al-Shati camp near Gaza city. A building was also destroyed in Gaza City’s upscale Tel al-Hawa neighborhood.
Zilberman said the military was deploying additional air defenses throughout the country, notably in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. Tel Aviv had yet to be targeted as of Tuesday morning, but the IDF suspected that rocket fire may soon be directed there as well.
Earlier, the Hamas military wing issued an ultimatum that it would carry out a massive attack by 2 a.m. if Israel did not vacate its forces from the Temple Mount. It later claimed that it had suspended plans for the attack after police withdrew from the holy site.
There was no confirmation from Israel that police had left the compound.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the IDF would continue striking Hamas and other terrorists in the Strip until “long-term and complete quiet” is restored.
Gantz also threatened Hamas’s leadership, saying its commanders would “be held responsible and pay the price for the aggression.”
The waves of rocket fire began at 6 p.m., the time Hamas had earlier threatened it would attack Israel if it did not remove its security forces from the Temple Mount and the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, following weeks of unrest in the capital. Monday saw widespread clashes between Palestinians and Israel Police officers on the Temple Mount, as well as multiple attacks by Palestinian rioters against Israeli civilians. Hundreds of Palestinians were reportedly injured, along with dozens of police officers and a number of Israeli civilians.
In addition to the attack on the capital — the first time Jerusalem was targeted by rocket fire since the 2014 Gaza war — Palestinian terror groups fired rockets and mortar shells at Israeli cities and towns near the Gaza border, mostly at Ashkelon and Sderot, as well as smaller communities in the Sha’ar Hanegev region of southern Israel.
An anti-tank guided missile was also fired at an Israeli civilian’s car that was traveling on a hill south of Sderot, lightly injuring him, the military said. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad took responsibility for the attack and later released footage of the strike.
In the video, the Israeli man can be seen approaching the jeep from a hill overlooking the Gaza Strip. As he gets close, the anti-tank missile is fired at the car, causing a large blast. The man was reportedly blown back from the vehicle by the blast and sustained shrapnel wounds to the face and extremities.
The Israeli Air Force began conducting retaliatory airstrikes on Hamas-controlled targets in the Strip around 6:30 p.m. in response to the attacks from the enclave, including at rocket-launching teams.
The military said its fighter jets bombed a Hamas attack tunnel in the northern Gaza Strip. A number of Hamas members were believed to be inside the tunnel at the time and were killed in the strike. It was not immediately clear if the tunnel crossed into Israeli territory.
In light of the ongoing rocket attacks, Gantz declared the area within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the Gaza Strip to be under military control, giving the IDF the power to issue directives to civilians there. The IDF ordered schools closed in communities near Gaza on Tuesday and limited gatherings to groups of 10 people outdoors and 50 people indoors. Businesses would be allowed to open only if they had easy access to bomb shelters.
The military also limited gatherings in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and the Shfela region around Beit Shemesh to 30 people outdoors and 50 people indoors. Schools and businesses there could also only be opened if they had easy access to a bomb shelter. A number of cities in central Israel announced they were preemptively canceling schools on Tuesday as a precautionary measure.
Hamas claimed responsibility for firing the seven rockets at Jerusalem, one of which was intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, according to the IDF. One rocket landed near a home in a community outside Jerusalem, causing light damage, but no injuries. Some of the others sparked fires in the forests surrounding the capital, which were quickly extinguished.
The attack triggered sirens in the capital, as well as in Beit Shemesh and surrounding towns. The Knesset plenum was evacuated, as was the Western Wall complex, where thousands of Israelis had gathered to celebrate Jerusalem Day, which marks the reunification of the city after the IDF captured its eastern neighborhoods and the Old City in the 1967 Six Day War.
Zilberman, the military spokesman, said a number of terror groups conducted the rocket launches, but all with the approval and at the direction of Hamas, the de facto ruler of the Gaza Strip.
“We have a clear address: that is Hamas. The group will pay a dear price for its actions. We will respond fiercely,” he said.
Over the past day, the IDF has significantly boosted its presence along the Gaza border both in terms of ground troops and air defense systems, Zilberman said.
The military initially believed that Hamas was not interested in a large-scale conflict with Israel at this time, but that assessment changed over the past two days and the IDF began preparing accordingly.
Recent days have seen a number of rocket and mortar shell attacks from the Gaza Strip, as well as a major return of balloon-borne incendiary and explosive devices being launched from Gaza, which have burned large swaths of southern Israel.
Palestinian terror groups have tied the attacks to the unrest in Jerusalem connected to both prayer on the Temple Mount during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and the pending eviction of a number of Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.
Israel has fought three large operations against Hamas and other terror groups in the Gaza Strip since 2008, most recently in 2014 with a 51-day war known as Operation Protective Edge.
Hamas, which is officially dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel, took effective control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 from the Palestinian Authority in a violent coup. Since then, Israel has imposed a naval blockade on the enclave, as well as stiff control over what can enter the Strip, maintaining that it is necessary in order to prevent terror groups from smuggling weapons into the area.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.