Southern Israel Under Attack Again by Rockets from Gaza

Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists in Gaza fired a record high of over 460 rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel over a 25-hour period this week, more than double the previous one-day record of 192. The missile barrage started shortly after 4:30 p.m. Monday, with an attack by a Russian-made anti-tank rocket on a bus at the Black Arrow memorial near Kibbutz Kfar Azza. A 19-year old soldier standing next to the bus was critically injured. After he underwent two emergency surgical operations at Soroka Hospital in Be’er Sheva, doctors said he was ex-pected to make a full recovery from his wounds.

Fortunately, the bus was empty when the missile hit. According to the bus driver, about 50 sol-diers had been on the bus moments earlier, but miraculously had all disembarked before the missile hit, sending the vehicle up in flames. The bus driver, who works for a private transpor-tation company under contract to the army, is a member of one of the Bedouin tribes that live in the Negev. He was released after receiving treatment from the hospital Monday.

The bombardment of several southern towns let up at about 1:30 a.m. Monday night, only to resume a few hours later at dawn Tuesday. The intense missile barrage disrupted an elaborate truce agreement between Hamas and Israel which had been negotiated by Egyptian officials. It included arrangements for humanitarian assistance and cash payments to Gaza residents from the government of Qatar.

The missile barrage ended at about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, after Israel accepted a request from Ha-mas leaders to re-institute the truce agreement before the tit-for-tat violence spiraled complete-ly out of control. Reportedly, Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu overruled objections to re-instating the ceasefire raised by four of his ministers during a contentious, seven-hour long se-curity cabinet meeting Tuesday.

Immediately after the meeting, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Education Minister Naftoli Bennett issued strong denials that they supported the reinstatement of the ceasefire. Lieberman called reports to the contrary “fake news” and Bennett called them a “total lie.” Yerushalayim Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked were also said to have spoken out against the ceasefire during the meeting.

Residents of Sderot, which has borne the brunt of the missile attacks, staged a public protest at the entrance to the city against the restoration of the ceasefire. They wanted the Israeli army to go into Gaza and eliminate the Hamas threat permanently.

The official statement issued after the security cabinet meeting claimed that it had adjourned without coming to a firm conclusion, but that the Israeli army had been authorized to continue its military operations in Gaza “as necessary.”

An unidentified Israeli official described his understanding of the cabinet’s decision as follows: “Israel maintains its right to act. Requests from Hamas for a ceasefire came through four dif-ferent mediators. Israel responded that the events on the ground will decide [if a ceasefire will go into effect].”

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said that if Israel halted airstrikes on Hamas targets in Gaza, Ha-mas would immediately return to the Egyptian and UN-sponsored negotiations to finalize a ceasefire that includes the payment of back wages by Qatar for civil service workers in Gaza and Qatar’s purchase of fuel for Gaza’s electrical generator to ease the daily power blackouts.

Once the agreement went into effect, Hamas leaders in Gaza were quick to declare the ceasefire to be a victory over Israel. Street celebrations and victory marches by Hamas supporters were quickly organized in Gaza. Speaking in front of the rubble which used to be the Al-Aqsa TV headquarters before it was destroyed by an Israeli air strike Monday night, senior Hamas offi-cial Ismail Radwan promised Hamas supporters that their rockets “will shake Haifa and Jaffa and Ashkelon” in the future. “We come out today to celebrate the victory of the Palestinian re-sistance here in the mighty land of Gaza.”

The only fatality reported in Israel from the missile barrage was a 48-year-old Palestinian man from Chevron with an Israeli work permit, while he was asleep Monday night when a missile penetrated the outer wall of his fourth-floor apartment and exploded. A total of 27 Israelis have been wounded by the missile strikes across southern Israel, but all are expected to recover. An-other 81 Israelis were treated in hospitals for shock.

Several dozen families living in communities within missile range of Gaza had fled their homes to safer areas of the country until the missile attacks ended.

On Tuesday, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, made a solidarity visit to a bomb shelter in the southern town of Netivot to tell local residents that the Israeli people are standing behind them.

The Israeli army had already dispatched additional Iron Dome missile defense units to defend the area on Monday morning because of a salvo of about 10 missiles which had been fired from Gaza the previous evening. The tensions were ignited by a firefight earlier Sunday night be-tween Hamas terrorists and an Israeli commando unit which had penetrated Gaza to conduct a clandestine surveillance mission and was detected before it could return to the Israeli border.

Tensions had been running high along the Gaza border since March, when Hamas began re-cruiting civilians to conduct weekly protests at the border fence. The protesters served as cover for Hamas snipers and terrorists seeking to plant explosives, damage the fence and penetrate into Israel. The protesters were also able to do considerable damage to Israeli fields by launch-ing incendiary kites and balloons which drifted over the border to destroy crops and keep Israeli firefighters busy putting out brush fires.

Israeli troops along the border tried to subdue violent protesters using non-lethal riot control measures, and fired live ammunition at anyone approaching the border fence, killing more than 170 protesters, but they were unable to halt the weekly protests. Many observers put much of the blame for the rising tensions in Gaza on Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who objects to any attempt to negotiate a truce between Israel and Hamas on the Gaza border without his cooperation. Abbas’ decisions to cut off payments for civil servants in Gaza and for diesel fuel to run its electrical generator have significantly added to the misery of Gaza’s resi-dents.

Finally, in response to rising complaints from the residents of Israeli communities near the border, the Israeli government agreed to indirect negotiations with Hamas by Egyptian gov-ernment officials on the terms of an informal truce along the border. The truce also included permission for Qatar to provide the significant amounts of direct economic to relieve the plight of Gaza residents.

Qatar agreed to supply fuel oil to run Gaza’s electric generators because the Palestinian Au-thority refused to continue payments for the electricity being supplied to Gaza by Israel. Qatar also agreed to supply $15 million in cash each month to pay the salaries of thousands of Gaza residents employed by the Palestinian Authority, but whose wage payments had been cut off due to the PA’s ongoing political disputes with Hamas.

Israel’s agreement to permit the transfer of so much cash from Qatar through Hamas to Gaza residents was particularly embarrassing to the Netanyahu government. The prime minister was blasted by his right-wing critics for agreeing to the “cash for quiet” deal, its complicity in the payment of the extortion money and its surrender to the intimidation of terrorists.

On Sunday, Netanyahu defended his decision to permit the distribution of the Qatari cash as the best way to avert an “unnecessary war” with Gaza, restore quiet for residents of southern Israel and provide badly needed humanitarian aid for the impoverished civilian residents of Gaza. He then cut short his visit to meet with international leaders in Paris before returning to Israel Monday to supervise the response to the unfolding events in Gaza.

Before the Israeli commando raid, the truce agreement providing for direct aid to Gaza resi-dents from Qatar appeared to be successful in reducing the level of tensions in Gaza. Thanks to fresh shipment of diesel fuel to the generating station in Gaza, residents began receiving elec-trical service for 12 hours a day rather than just four hours, and thousands of Gaza residents received cash back payments on the wages due them by Hamas for the first time in months. While the weekly border demonstrations continued, Hamas officials made sure that they were far less violent than in the past several months.

There were growing hopes that a semi-permanent informal truce would take hold along the Ga-za border, thanks to the significant improvement in living conditions for Gaza residents made possible by the aid from Qatar. But those hopes were dashed when Hamas officials decided to launch the missile barrage against southern Israel in revenge for the deaths of seven of its fighters, including an area commander, during the firefight Sunday night with Israeli comman-dos.

There was much speculation in the Israeli media about why the Israeli military was permitted to stage the commando reconnaissance mission at such a delicate stage in the truce negotiations with Hamas. Israeli officials responded that the commandos had routinely conducted such op-erations many times before without being detected by Hamas, so they believed that the risk of the mission triggering a violent incident was very low.

The Israeli military provided few details about the commando raid. Army chief of staff General Gadi Eisenkot would only say that a “special force” had carried out “a very meaningful opera-tion to Israel’s security.”

Hamas’ military wing provided more details of the engagement. It said that the Israeli under-cover forces drove about two miles into southeastern Gaza in a civilian car before they were detected by Hamas fighters, who began to chase it. At that point, the commandos called in an Israeli airstrike to help cover their escape. In the resulting air-ground battle, seven terrorists were killed including Nour el-Deen Baraka, a mid-level Hamas commander based in the south-ern Gaza town of Khan Younis. A lieutenant colonel in the elite Israeli Maglan commando unit was also killed in the firefight. Upon reaching the border, the commandos destroyed the car to prevent its equipment from falling into enemy hands. Hamas later released photos of the wrecked vehicle that the commandoes left behind.

In response to media speculation that the purpose of the commando raid might have been to as-sassinate or kidnap the Hamas commander, an Israeli army spokesman clarified that the opera-tion was “not intended to kill or abduct terrorists but to strengthen Israeli security.” He noted that once it had been detected, the force faced a “very complex battle. . . [It] acted swiftly, pro-fessionally, was able to defend itself, [and] exfiltrate in a very professional manner, making sure that all soldiers got back to Israel, [and] that none were left behind.” The spokesman em-phasized that the intelligence gathering operation was not unique, and was a routine part of the army’s efforts to stay ahead of the terrorist threat across the Gaza border.

Former Israeli army general and national security adviser Giora Eiland explained to the New York Times “The real assumption [by Israeli officials in permitting such a mission to go for-ward] is that the operation will not be revealed. It’s not 100 percent, but it can be estimated that 99 percent of these operations are not revealed, and 99 percent is good enough to make a deci-sion assuming that the force will enter, execute and go out without being detected.”

However, despite the relatively low risk of exposure, all such secret missions must be approved by the prime minister personally before they can go forward.

There was a delay of almost a day between the firefight in Gaza and the start of the intense missile bombardment. The barrage was apparently a reaction by Hamas leaders to demands from the Palestinian street to avenge the death of Baraka.

The Israeli lieutenant colonel who was killed during the firefight in Gaza was from the Druze community. He received a hero’s funeral Monday, but because of the secrecy surrounding his commando unit, the funeral was closed to media coverage. Prime Minister Netanyahu praised the slain officer, and said “our forces acted courageously” during their battle with Hamas forc-es in Gaza.

The Iron Dome system intercepted more than 100 of the rockets which has been fired since Monday evening to prevent them from reaching their targets in built up areas. Most of the rest of the rockets were allowed by the Iron Dome system to fall harmlessly on open land, but a few of the missiles did get through the defense system to find their marks.

The most serious civilian casualties were caused by a missile which blasted a gaping hole in the side of the fourth floor of an apartment building in the Shimshon neighborhood of Ashkelon just before midnight and set it on fire while its occupants were inside. Rescue forces found a seriously injured 60-year-old woman in the debris and evacuated her in critical condition to the Barzilai Medical Center for treatment. At the same time, firefighters were trying to cool gas storage tanks in the building to keep them from exploding due to the heat from the flames. When the immediate danger had passed, and believing that there were no more casualties at the scene, police and fire officials allowed the other residents to re-enter the building, as the rescue crews were called away to deal with a missile strike which damaged and set fire to another building in the area.

However, about an hour later, rescue workers were called back to the building by residents who realized that one of the damaged apartments had not been searched for victims. Inside that apartment, whose walls had collapsed, they found a man and woman buried under the rubble. The woman was injured but still alive, and was evacuated to the hospital. The man, however, was found dead. He was later identified as Mohammed Abdel Hamid Abu Isbah, a Palestinian Arab from Chevron who had a work permit allowing him to live in Israel legally.

The next morning, local residents complained to Ashkelon Mayor Tomer Glam, when he ar-rived to inspect the damage, that the building in which the Palestinian man was killed had no shelter, and the nearest public shelter was locked.

“We found ourselves helpless. We didn’t know whether we should go back into the building or just run away,” a building resident said. “I feel we’ve been abandoned. We had nowhere to run, and right now we have nowhere to go, because we’re not allowed back into the building for fear its walls would collapse.”

The mayor responded by telling the residents that he agrees that their building should be reno-vated to be fitted with a shelter, but the city of Ashkelon does not have any money in its budget to pay for that project.

Later, Mayor Glam told a reporter, “The number of rocket launches was far bigger than the last time. Iron Dome intercepted 80-90 percent of the rockets, but despite that, there were still five rockets that fell inside the city.”

Buildings in Sderot were also hit by the barrage, causing damage and injuries. A local religious council building was hit in Netivot, and a mortar shell damaged a powerline in the S’dot Negev region, knocking out electrical service. Two more homes were hit in the Eshkol region, but did not cause any injuries. Barzilai Hospital reported treating a total of 19 people for their wounds, and another 31 people for shock. Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva treated three people for rocket-related injuries and 44 others for shock.

One of the missiles struck the Ashkelon home of Ruti Mozgorshvili. She told a reporter, “I heard a siren and went into the fortified room. A rocket then fell through my living room, I didn’t even get a chance to close the safe room’s window.

“There was total darkness because of a power outage. I heard a loud boom, which was unforget-table.” When she exited the safe room, “I heard people yelling, ‘get outside, get outside,’” Mozgorshvili said.

Several Sderot residents reacted with anger at being subjected to yet another missile attack from Gaza.

“It doesn’t matter that I’ve lived here for 19 years, it was nerve-wracking,” 19-year-old Dvir Sasi told Israel Army Radio. “I felt like they were trying to kill me. It was a full half hour of explosions. Do I need to die for there to be a response? Does someone need to get hurt for [the government] to wake up? I expect a better response from the government.”

Another frustrated Sderot resident, Bilha Maman, said, “The emotional harm is too much to bear. We keep trying to rebuild and it keeps on being set back [by another war]. It is unaccepta-ble that Hamas is being allowed to run this country.”

After a missile struck a house in Netivot, another resident from the community asked a reporter to send his message to Israel’s leaders: “Instead of sitting and having cabinet meetings, start moving. Wake up, they hate us.”

Code Red missile warning sirens were sounded throughout southern Israel and could be heard as far away as the Dead Sea and Chevron. Residents of communities close to the Gaza border, including Sderot, Netivot and Ofakim, were told to leave their homes and enter bomb shelters. The warnings were extended to residents of Israeli towns as far as 25 miles away from Gaza, including Be’er Sheva, Ashkelon and Ashdod. They were told that they could remain in their homes only if they were close enough to a bomb shelter to reach it in time if the Code Red si-rens go off.

Sara Mash, whose family lives in Kibbutz Alumim, less than two miles from the Gaza border, told a New York Times reporter that the Monday night bombardment was much intense than previous missile salvos from Gaza her family had endured in recent years. “We’ve had times like this, but you could at least step out of the safe room and breathe,” she said. “This is a situa-tion where we could not, because every second there was a boom, nonstop, and you have no idea what is going on outside: Is it our side or theirs?”

Mash was speaking to the reporter by phone from her child’s fortified bedroom, where her fam-ily had taken shelter when the missile barrage started Monday afternoon. She was about to elaborate when another Code Red alert went off. The last thing the reporter heard was Mash shouting to her husband, “Red alert! Red alert! Pick him up!” apparently referring to one of her three children, before she hung up the phone.

The Israeli army retaliated throughout Monday night with steadily more intense airstrikes and tank fire aimed at more than 150 Hamas and Islamic Jihad military targets across Gaza.

Hamas officials said the Israeli counterattacks had killed three Palestinians and wounded an-other nine. The Israelis attacked three terror tunnels as well as weapons depots and factories, military observation posts, a Hamas naval installation in the port of Nuseirat, a Hamas military research and development center in a building near a school, and a missile cell in northern Gaza while it was attempting to launch a rocket. Israel also destroyed a Hamas internal security headquarters disguised as an office in the Al Amal hotel, which is in a densely populated area, as well as the Hamas-run al-Aqsa TV studio.

These attacks were another sign of the escalation in Israel’s military response to the rocket fire. It has begun attacking targets in built-up areas of Gaza which it had previously avoided because of the danger of unintended civilian casualties, despite the standard precautions it uses in those situations.

In the attack on the television studio, Israel first launched a rocket with a dummy warhead to “knock on the roof” to warn anyone inside to get out before a second, fully armed missile would be launched to destroy the building. The channel went dark, but was soon back on the air.

An Israeli army spokesman defended the attack as justified because, “the station broadcasts vi-olent propaganda against the State of Israel and its citizens, as well as operational messaging to terrorists, which include methods for carrying out attacks against civilians and soldiers and ways to obtain weapons.”

The volume of missile fire from Gaza during the 24-hour period starting Monday night was twice as intense as the attacks which triggered the Israel army’s retaliatory Operation Protec-tive Edge, which devastated much of Gaza in July 2014.

All public events that had been scheduled for Monday night in the Gaza vicinity were canceled. Non-essential businesses and government offices in the region were ordered to close by the military. The mayor of Ashkelon opened all public shelters throughout the city, and sent teams to make sure that they were ready to care for residents.

A run-off election scheduled for Tuesday in the Hof Ashkelon region was postponed. Classes were canceled Tuesday in schools throughout the Gaza border region and the central Negev re-gions, including the cities of Be’er Sheva, Kiryat Malachi and Kiryat Gat.

The Israeli army dispatched additional infantry battalions to the Gaza area Monday morning to prevent terrorist infiltrations into Israeli communities near the border. On Monday evening, large numbers of tanks and other military vehicles being carried on the beds of large trucks were seen moving south toward Gaza on the main roads in the region. Israeli media also report-ed that the security cabinet had ordered the army to step up its retaliatory strikes against Hamas and Palestinian Jihad targets in Gaza in response to the intense missile barrage.

Israeli army officials said Tuesday that only a few reservists had been called up to active duty in response to the missile attacks so far, but that more may be summoned if the attacks contin-ue. IDF spokesman General Ronen Manlis tweeted, “We are in the midst of a wide-scale pro-cess of accumulating more infantry, armored and other forces to the area adjacent to Gaza, and we are mobilizing reserves for Iron Dome operations and the Home Front Command. We struck four multi-story buildings that Hamas uses for terror activity. We attacked the buildings in an orderly manner after the inhabitants have been evacuated,” he noted.

“Hamas is behaving as if we [Israel] have moved on to targeted assassinations. Their men have been in hiding since Monday afternoon. Hamas knows very well what we are attacking and what the cost of the confrontation with the IDF is. We will continue to act with full force,” Manelis added.

After the missile barrage resumed Tuesday morning, Israeli government officials announced that they were suspending their cooperation with Egyptian security officials and the UN Special Envoy to the Middle East, Nickolay Mladenov, who were trying to finalize an emerging, infor-mal truce agreement between Hamas and Israel. Earlier, Mladenov had tweeted: “The UN is working closely with Egypt and all concerned to ensure that Gaza steps back from the brink. The escalation in the past 24 hours is extremely dangerous and reckless. Rockets must stop; restraint must be shown by all! No effort must be spared to reverse the spiral of violence.”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres issued a statement urging both Israel and the Palestini-ans “to exercise maximum restraint.”

The official American reaction to the outbreak of violence was much more supportive of Isra-el’s actions in self-defense. A State Department official said Monday, “We are aware of reports of ongoing rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza against targets in Israel. We condemn these attacks, and call for their immediate halt. We stand with Israel as it defends itself against these attacks.”

Jason Greenblatt, President Trump’s envoy to the Middle East, tweeted: “Gaza terrorists are once again attacking Israel with rockets and mortars. We must all condemn these attacks. Israel must once again use military force to protect its citizens.

“We stand with Israel in its defense against these attacks. Hamas’s actions continue to prove that they do not care about the people of Gaza and they use them for their political agenda… The world is sick of the violence of Hamas and other negative elements in Gaza. This violence is preventing true assistance to the people of Gaza.”

The renewed violence in Gaza received relatively little attention from the mainstream news media in the United States, which was still pre-occupied with the political consequences of last week’s midterm elections and ongoing controversies over vote recounts needed to settle close races in Florida and Georgia.

Israeli military spokesman Jonathan Conricus warned Tuesday morning that the army is pre-pared to escalate the level of its retaliation further if Hamas doesn’t stop the missile attacks from Gaza.

“There is ample room for additional targets,” he said. “We have signaled to Hamas over the course of this night that we have the intelligence and ability to strike a variety of military tar-gets that belong to Hamas.”

Conricus added that Hamas and Palestinian Jihad are in no danger of running out of rockets. They are believed to have “in excess of 20,000 rockets and mortar shells of different calibers and ranges” in their arsenals in Gaza, many of which were supplied by Iran. That is almost twice the number of missiles they had during Operation Protective Edge in 2014. So far, the terrorists had been launching mostly short-range projectiles at Israeli targets within a few miles of the Gaza border, but they certainly have the capability to strike more distant targets, includ-ing Tel Aviv, which was specifically threatened by a Palestinian Jihad spokesman.

When asked about the deadly missile strike on the apartment building in Ashkelon, Conricus responded, “The Iron Dome so far has been phenomenal, but even the Iron Dome is not hermet-ic and we cannot expect it to intercept everything, especially when it’s dealing with this amount of rockets. It is unfortunate that of the dozens of rockets fired at Ashkelon, one was able to get through our defenses and hit a building in a populated area.”

Military analysts said that Hamas appeared to be trying to overwhelm the Iron Dome system by launching multiple rocket attacks simultaneously, and were hoping that the Israelis would even-tually run out of the interceptor rockets, leaving the civilian population vulnerable once again.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders responded to Israeli warnings with fresh threats to attack more distant Israeli cities with larger rockets. A spokesman for Islamic Jihad spokesman said that Gaza’s terror groups wanted “the occupation [Israel] and its supporters know that the lives of our sons come with a price.”

A Hamas spokesman said, “the blood of our righteous martyrs will not be wasted,” and warned that Israel should view the deadly missile attack on Ashkelon to be a “warning” of more to come if the Israeli army’s retaliatory attacks continue. “Ashdod and Be’er Sheva are next in line. . . Approximately one million Zionists will be within the range of our missiles if the Zion-ist enemy’s decision is to continue its aggression,” the Hamas spokesman added.

A separate statement issued by Gaza terrorist groups said, “The resistance’s response is the natural response in the name of the Palestinian people… Israelis will not feel safe as long as the Palestinians do not achieve security.”

As a show of force, Hamas set up checkpoints across Gaza Monday and closed the border cross-ings with Israel, preventing foreign journalists, local businessmen and some humanitarian aid workers from leaving the area. But the fact that Hamas leaders simultaneously went into hiding cannot be encouraging to Gaza’s civilian residents who face the prospect of having to rebuild their lives again after yet another escalating military confrontation with Israel.