Four Rockets Hit Southern Israel; Schools Closed in Major Towns

The security situation in the south of Israel deteriorates.

A Grad-type rocket was launched yesterday from Gaza toward Ashdod and three Qassam rockets were fired at the Israeli side of the Gaza border yesterday, in another day of exchanges of fire in the area of the Strip. Five mortar shells were fired over to the Israeli side of the border. None of the attacks resulted in casualties or damage on the Israeli side, but Palestinians reported one man was seriously wounded in an Israeli air strike in Gaza yesterday. The IDF attacked targets in Gaza in the morning and evening.

The ongoing escalation resulted in several cities deciding to call off school today, including in Be'er Sheva, Ashdod, Ashkelon and Kiryat Gat. The decision means 150,000 students will stay home. By contrast, Sderot and communities closer to Gaza will hold classes as usual tomorrow, since their school buildings have been reinforced against attacks.

rocket - Reuters - March 25 2011

Channel 10 reported yesterday that a battery of the Iron Dome rocket interception system will be deployed in the south on Sunday. As only one battery will be deployed, the system will be able to protect only a limited area, and as it has not yet been declared operational, its effectiveness in protecting southern communities remains unclear.

The rocket fire yesterday continued despite reported attempts by Hamas to reign in the Islamic Jihad, which is firing most of the rockets.

The Grad missile landed shortly before 3 P.M. yesterday in an open area in Ashdod. The explosion caused residents in cities considerably to the north of Ashkelon, such as Rishon Letzion, to report a missile hit, but subsequent checks only found one Grad-type rocket.

The Israel Air Force launched two attacks on the Strip yesterday. It attacked a group launching Grad missiles at about 9 A.M., with the militants fleeing but the launcher successfully destroyed. In the evening, the IAF attacked an Islamic Jihad target described as a "weapons manufacturing site."

The Home Front Command yesterday criticized the decision by mayors to call off school in the wake of the rocket attacks, pointing out that the army was yet to declare the situation an emergency. Colonel Yoram Lev-Ran, commander of the command's search and rescue school, said "we are holding constant situation estimates with the heads of local authorities, and GOC Home Front Command met with them yesterday. Our recommendation was not to interrupt studies because most school buildings are protected, but we don't get to decide on this."

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch visited Be'er Sheva, Ashdod and Ashkelon yesterday. "We are dealing with an enemy hiding behind civilians," the minister said. "We need to act in a quiet and measured way, not with a gut reaction. The Israeli government must ensure the personal safety of residents of the south. We must act strongly against Hamas and the terrorist organizations to bring back stability and quiet. We won't let anyone hurt our civilians. The ones behind the rocket attacks are the Hamas."

Islamic Jihad leaders in the Gaza Strip said yesterday they were not interested in escalation, and said they would consider a ceasefire if Israel would consider it as well. Khaled Batash, one of the organization's leaders, said yesterday that if "the Zionist enemy" stopped its aggression, Islamic Jihad will see itself committed to a ceasefire. "If the enemy goes on, we can only retaliate strongly," Batash said.

Two other senior Jihad leaders, Sheikh Nafez Azam and Muhammad al-Hindi, left the Strip for Damascus yesterday, to discuss with the rest of the leadership the possibility of a ceasefire. It's unclear just how much leverage Damascus and Tehran have with the Jihad at this point in time, and whether they are pushing for an escalation around the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian Authority meanwhile arrested two of the organization's leaders in Jenin.

Meanwhile, hoteliers in the south reported yesterday that although many potential customers were calling in to cancel booking, there was no real collapse of tourism to the Western Negev. Sources in Africa Israel, which owns the Holiday Inn in Ashkelon, said that although an Israeli organized group canceled its weekend stay, new individual bookings soon filled the gap. Another Ashkelon hotel, Ganei Dan, also reported some cancelations, as did the Leonardo Negev hotel in Be'er Sheva.