Dozens of Rockets Pound Southern Israel;15 Palestinians Killed in IDF Strikes on Gaza

Latest escalation sparked by assassination of terrorist leader in air strike; Iron Dome intercepts 28 incoming missiles; Netanyahu: We will not stop attacking our enemies.

Palestinian militants fired more than 100 rockets at southern Israel over the weekend after an air force strike in Gaza killed a leader of the Popular Resistance Committees and a militant freed in the Gilad Shalit deal.

In response to the rocket and mortar fire, the IDF carried out 18 attacks on the Gaza Strip over the weekend, killing at least 15 Palestinians, 10 from Islamic Jihad and five from the Resistance Committees, military sources said. Ten strikes targeted rocket launching teams.

bomb shelter, be'er sheva
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Israel Defense Forces' Spokesman's Office said the fire from both sides was likely to continue in the next few days.

The Palestinians fired 110 rockets on Friday and Saturday evening, after several hours of quiet in between. Around 80 rockets landed in Israel, usually in open areas, causing no damage.

A mortar shell landed in the area of the Eshkol Regional Council, injuring four Thai laborers - one seriously, two moderately and one lightly.

The Iron Dome missile defense system, which was deployed in Be'er Sheva, Ashdod and Ashkelon, intercepted 28 of the 31 rockets it targeted. Three other targeted rockets landed in open areas.

Israel's air strike on Friday killed Zuhair al-Qaissi, the secretary general of the popular Resistance Committees, and Mahmoud Hanani, a member of the organization, the IDF said yesterday.

Qaissi was a planner of the terror attack in August that killed eight Israelis on the road along the Israel-Egypt border, the IDF said.

Israeli and Palestinian officials reported that the IDF fired two missiles at a car in northern Gaza, immediately killing Qaissi and Hanani, who were inside.

The IDF Spokesman's Office said Qaissi had been organizing a major terror attack to be carried out on Israel's border with Gaza. Hanani, of Nablus, was one of the men freed as part of the prisoner swap to release abducted soldier Gilad Shalit. Hanani had been expelled to the Gaza Strip.

IAF Commander Ido Nechushtan said yesterday the strikes were accurate and all the Palestinians who were killed were members of terror organizations.

The IDF said Israel holds Hamas, the sovereign in the Gaza Strip, responsible for the escalation. Although Hamas did not fire rockets, it did not do enough to maintain calm, the IDF said.

The Popular Resistance Committees vowed on Friday to avenge Qaissi's death in a way that would "shake the Zionist enemy."

Defense officials said yesterday that although Qaissi was killed, others may still be working to carry out the terror attack he was planning.

For this reason the IDF has closed Route 12, the road along the Egyptian border, two weeks after it had been reopened, to prevent possible attacks on civilians.

"The [fire] in the Gaza Strip is still far from over and [we are still] on alert for a terror attack from Sinai as well," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday.

"We will not allow anyone to attack Israelis. We'll act against anyone who tries to launch rockets or plan terror attacks, and whoever does will pay a hefty price."

School has been called off today in Ashkelon, Be'er Sheva, Ashdod, Netivot, Kiryat Malakhi, Kiryat Gat, Gedera, Yavneh, Gderot and other regional councils in Israel's south, affecting some 207,000 students.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized the barrage of rockets fired from Gaza to Israel. Meeting with Kadima chief Tzipi Livni at Newsweek's annual Women in the World Summit in New York, Clinton said "Israel has the right to defend itself."

Earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with regional council heads in the south and said Israel would continue to strike whoever plans attacks on Israeli citizens.

"We will improve the home front defenses," Netanyahu said, "also by purchasing more Iron Dome systems, which proved themselves again this weekend."

Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilnai visited Be'er Sheva and told reporters there was no telling when the firing would end.

"This round began, as others did, with our decision to take out a person who was involved in a terror attack and was planning another. Hamas is making efforts to restrain the more radical groups," Vilnai said.

Also yesterday, Palestinians said an Israeli air strike killed two people riding on a motorcycle in Gaza's Khan Yunis, bringing the total number of militants reportedly killed to 15.