IDF tank near Gaza border - Emil Salman
IDF tank near Gaza border. Photo by Emil Salman
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The Israel Defense Forces attacked dozens of targets in the Gaza Strip in response to more than 50 mortars being fired from the Gaza Strip at civilian communities and IDF bases in the Western Negev yesterday. The mortars slightly injured two people and damaged two buildings.

Yesterday's mortar fire was the first time since the end of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009 that Hamas has openly attacked Israel; almost all prior attacks had been carried out by other militant groups in the Gaza Strip. The mortars came in short barrages, beginning at 8:45 yesterday morning, and mainly landed out in the open in the Eshkol region, though two fell in a populated area.

On Friday at around noon, Hamas fighters armed with an anti-tank missile fired on but missed a four-man IDF patrol in a reinforced jeep, which was attacked along the border fence with the Gaza Strip.

While most IDF strikes against targets in the Gaza Strip since Operation Cast Lead have been from the air only, both the Israel Air Force and the Tank Corps responded yesterday, firing on Hamas lookout posts and front-line positions.

One Hamas activist was reportedly killed, and four Palestinian civilians were wounded.

Hamas' military wing claimed responsibility for the mortar fire, saying it had been a response to the IAF's attack on a Hamas training camp on Wednesday, in which two Hamas fighters were killed.

The IAF attack on the training camp came in response to a missile fired by Hamas at Kibbutz Alumim. However, the fact that the IAF attack was carried out in broad daylight against a manned position, which had not usually been the case over the past two years, was perceived by Hamas as escalation.

Israeli security officials said that the nature of the attack on Hamas was due to the terrorist murders at Itamar and the attempt by Hamas and Iran to smuggle advanced missiles into the Gaza Strip.

The smuggling attempt was thwarted when the ship Victoria was intercepted Tuesday morning.

A senior officer in the Southern Command said yesterday: "The policy of the IDF has not changed. We still view Hamas as the sovereign in the Gaza Strip and hold its responsible for any fire from the Strip."

The officer said yesterday's incidents do not yet herald escalation, "but there is potential for escalation. We could also hit Hamas much harder and more painfully, but this is just the first response."

The officer said he believed that the more time that passed since Operation Cast Lead, the more the deterrence achieved during that campaign would decline.

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz toured Western Negev communities yesterday and surveyed the damage. "We know what we must do, and the situation is under control from our point of view," he said.

Police and bomb disposal personnel were called in following the attack to locate the sites where mortars had fallen. People on day trips in the area were told to leave, and residents were instructed to remain in their security rooms for several hours.

Elah Koifman, who lives in a kibbutz in the Eshkol region said: "People were hysterical. The couple that were hurt are kibbutz residents. We didn't know where it came from. We were like ducks in a shooting gallery."

Koifman said people were troubled and feeling "like the story's not over."

The head of the Eshkol Regional Council, Haim Yellin, said: "Luckily, there are security rooms for the residents. Without them, the situation today would be completely different." Yellin praised area residents for their discipline, adding, "We know the language of Hamas. They showed today that it doesn't matter how many ships with arms are caught, some have already gotten to them, and they have no problem firing a barrage whenever they want."

Yellin added: "A sovereign country must not allow its residents to be fired upon."