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6 Israelis wounded as Hamas launches massive rocket barrage on Ashkelon

Palestinian terror groups in the Gaza Strip fired a massive barrage of rockets at the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon at dawn on Tuesday, wounding six people and threatening to turn the city “into hell.”

The assault came after a night of almost constant rocket fire on Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip and as the Israel Defense Forces conducted strikes on some 130 targets in the coastal enclave, the military said. It followed a day that saw a major outbreak of violence from Gaza, including rare rocket fire on Jerusalem.

On Tuesday morning, IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said the fighting was expected to last at least several days and that the coming hours would be particularly punishing.

“We have an intense day ahead of us,” Zilberman told reporters, adding, “We have a goal and we will not stop until we’ve reached it.”

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 Israel Defense Forces, 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 the Iron Dome missile defense system. According to Zilberman, roughly a third of the projectiles landed inside the Gaza Strip.

Most of the others landed in open fields, where they caused no injuries, but a small number landed inside Israeli communities, including at least three that directly struck a house in the Sha’ar Hanegev region on Monday night and two apartment buildings in Ashkelon on Tuesday morning.

According to Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry, at least 22 people were killed on Monday night and Tuesday morning, including nine minors. The IDF said at least 15 of those killed were members of the Hamas terror group who were launching rockets at Israel. Zilberman said a number of those killed in Gaza were struck by errant rockets fired from the Strip.

Video footage of the Tuesday morning attack showed dozens of rockets being fired at Ashkelon, with Iron Dome interceptor missiles screaming up into the grey morning sky to try and bring them down.

Six Israelis were wounded in that attack, including two men who sustained moderate injuries — a 40-year-old and a 63-year-old who were hit by shrapnel — and four who were lightly wounded, medics said.

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, and rocket production and storage sites. The IDF said it was also targeting terrorist operatives as they fired rockets at Israel.

Hamas in Gaza said it had launched the attack on Ashkelon, in which six Israelis were injured, in response to the IDF strike on the commander’s apartment building.

Hamas said it would “turn Ashkelon into hell” if Israel targeted civilians in Gaza.
Palestinian media 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.

The IDF spokesperson said Israel was taking steps to avoid Palestinian civilian casualties, but that they were liable to occur anyway as Hamas deliberately operates within a densely populated area to use the residents of the Strip as human shields.

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.

“In the next few days, Hamas will feel the long arm of the [Israeli] army. It won’t take a few minutes, it will take a few days,” IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman told reporters.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the IDF would continue striking Hamas and other terrorists in the Strip in what has been dubbed by the military as “Operation Guardian of the Walls” until “long-term and complete quiet” is restored.

Zilberman said the military was prepared for a wide range of possibilities, including a broader conflict with a ground operation, as well as a return to targeted killings of top terrorist leaders.

“Everything is on the table,” the spokesman said.

Gantz also threatened Hamas’s leadership, saying its commanders would “be held responsible and pay the price for the aggression.”

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 upwards of 150 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.

According to the military, dozens of the incoming projectiles were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system and most of the rest landed in open fields, where they caused no injuries. A small number struck inside populated areas, causing damage to nearby buildings and infrastructure, but no direct injuries, though at least three were lightly injured while running to bomb shelters, including a child. Seven other people were taken to hospitals after they suffered acute anxiety attacks, medics said.

One rocket directly hit a house in the Sha’ar Hanegev region, causing significant damage to the building, but no injuries, local authorities said.

The Israeli Air Force began conducting retaliatory airstrikes on Hamas-controlled targets in the Strip around 6:30 p.m. in response to the ongoing attacks from the enclave, including 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.

The IDF said it had also bombed Hamas launchpads, observation posts and military compounds.

The Gaza Health Ministry reported that at least 20 people were killed in the Israeli strikes, including nine minors. Hamas accused Israel of killing three children in the Gazan city of Beit Hanoun, but Israeli officials said they died as a result of a failed rocket launch from the Strip.

In light of the ongoing rocket attacks, Defense Minister Benny 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 for the following day and limited gatherings to groups of 10 people outdoors and 50 people indoors. Businesses would only be allowed to open 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 for the following day as a precautionary measure.

The waves of rocket fire began at 6 p.m. when Hamas 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.

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.

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.

In the subsequent hour, dozens of rockets were fired at Israeli towns near the Gaza border, triggering wave after wave of sirens, as residents hunkered down inside bomb shelters.

Zilberman 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.

Ahead of the attack, the IDF halted train service between Beersheba and Ashkelon, closed Zikim Beach just north of the Strip, and barred visitors from lookout points on hilltops near the Gaza border.

In addition, the military closed off the Route 4 highway from Zikim to Kibbutz Nir Am, the Route 34 highway from Yad Mordechai to Kibbutz Erez, and the Route 232 highway from Mefalsim to the Kfar Aza Junction.

Cities and towns near the Gaza border also opened their public bomb shelters.

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.

Source: Judah Ari Gross – TOI