Cars burning in Ashdod - Eliahu Hershkovitz - 30102011
Cars burning in Ashdod Saturday night after a Grad rocket slammed into the city center. Photo by Eliahu Hershkovitz
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A man in his 50s was killed in Ashkelon on Saturday, in one of a series of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip on the south of Israel. Another resident from the south was moderately injured and three sustained light injuries. About 25 rockets and mortar shells were fired at southern Israeli communities after Israel's air force bombed an Islamic Jihad camp in the southern Gaza Strip on Saturday morning, killing a commander of the Palestinian faction and four of its munitions experts.

Most of the fire from Gaza was carried out by Islamic Jihad cells. The Israel Defense Forces assessment is that the escalation will continue. "We can apparently expect an escalation at least over the next day and maybe for a number of days beyond that," said Col. Doron Mor-Yosef, the southern district commander of the Home Front Command.

The Israeli aerial strike was carried out at about 11 A.M. Saturday. According to Palestinian sources, the Islamic Jihad cell that was hit was located on the former site of a Jewish settlement near Rafah and was hit by aircraft that fired two missiles. The IDF spokesman said the operation was carried out in cooperation with the Shin Bet security service against members of the cell that fired a Grad rocket Wednesday night.

The IDF termed the strike against the cell "preventative," saying the cell members were preparing to fire an additional rocket into Israel. Commenting on the Rafah deaths, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri accused Israel of a "serious escalation against our people."

The Israeli aerial attack was followed by fire from the Gaza Strip, at southern Israeli communities, of Grad rockets as well as one Qassam rocket and a number of mortar shells. In a further response, at about 8 P.M. Saturday, the Israel Air Force attacked an Islamic Jihad rocket-launching cell in the Rafah area.

The IDF currently has three Iron Dome anti-missile batteries. Over the weekend, two Iron Dome batteries were deployed in the south, one near Be'er Sheva and the other in the Ashdod area. The battery near Be'er Sheva intercepted and destroyed the Grad that was fired at the city. The system detected two more rockets that were destined to fall in open areas. The system therefore was not deployed to intercept them.

The third Iron Dome battery was positioned last week in the north, as part of trials of the system in advance of the full operational use of Iron Dome. Following the escalation in the south, it will probably be moved to the Ashkelon area on Sunday, where it had been stationed in the past.

This is the third round of escalations in the south in which Iron Dome has been deployed. More than 20 Grad missiles have been intercepted up to this point. The air force has said the system's success rate is close to 90 percent, adding that this is unprecedented for a new system that is unique anywhere around the world. It was also noted that it had been put into service on an expedited basis.

The sense in the defense establishment is that Hamas, which is in overall control of the Gaza Strip, has no interest in escalating the situation in the south at the moment. Although the first stage of the prisoner transfer for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit has been carried out, there remains a second phase in which Israel is to free another 550 Palestinian prisoners, in about a month and a half.

The recent rocket fire, which was almost all carried out by Islamic Jihad - as well, apparently, as forces close to Fatah - was mostly an effort to divert the attention of the Palestinian public of Hamas' achievement in achieving the prisoner exchange. In the week prior to the Shalit deal, no rockets were fired into Israel from Gaza, which was seen as a desire on Hamas' part to head off anything that would harm the deal.

In the defense establishment, there is the conviction that if Hamas had been interested in doing so, it could have almost completely prevented the fire from the strip but found it difficult from an internal Palestinian perspective to justify concerted action against rocket-firing into Israel.

The Home Front Command conducted a broad situation assessment on Saturday regarding policies to protect the south. Even prior to the completion of the assessment, however, the heads of some of the local authorities in the south announced the cancellation of classes for Sunday, before the Home Front Command ordered classes cancelled in all communities within 40 kilometers of the Gaza Strip.

Currently residents are being instructed to remain in close proximity to their protected spaces and if a siren or explosion is heard, they are to enter the protected spaces and wait there for ten minutes. The Home Front Command has also ordered that gatherings of more than 500 people not be allowed within the 40-kilometer range. As a result, the social protest rally scheduled for Be'er Sheva was cancelled.

On Saturday, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is visiting Europe, threatened that Israel's response to the attacks would be severe, if the rocket fire does not stop. Israel was not seeking a confrontation with the Palestinians, he added, but would not suffer volley after volley of rocket fire without responding.