Israel Strikes Gaza After Rocket Hits Be'er Sheva; Hamas, Islamic Jihad Deny Responsibility

Army strikes 20 Gaza targets, says Hamas responsible for rockets ■ Palestinians say one dead ■ Security cabinet convening ■ Hamas, Islamic Jihad: Rockets meant to torpedo Egypt talks ■ IDF chief cuts short U.S. trip

Home in Be'er Sheva damaged by rocket early on October 17, 2018.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A rocket launched from Gaza hit a house in the southern Israeli city of Be'er Sheva in the early morning hours of Wednesday, damaging it heavily. Another rocket landed in the sea near one of the major cities in Israel's largest metropolitan area.

The Israeli military said it struck 20 targets in Gaza in response, including a Hamas attack tunnel in the southern Strip. Other targets included Hamas military bases and a rocket manufacturing site. The assault "significantly damaged Hamas' capabilities," IDF Spokesman Ronen Manelis added. The IDF also struck a group that was attempting to fire a rocket at Israel, later releasing footage of the incident.

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The security cabinet is currently convening to discuss the escalation in the south.

Manelis said the military holds Hamas responsible for the rocket launches. "Rockets of the type fired overnight are in the possession of just two organizations, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad," Manelis said, adding that "Hamas is harming the prospects for an arrangement [on long-term calm] and easing [the situation] in Gaza, which mainly harms the residents of Gaza."

Video released by the military of a strike on Palestinians about to fire rockets at Israel on OctobeVideo released by the military of a strike on Palestinians about to fire rockets at Israel on Octobe

The IDF's assessment is that if launches from Gaza stop, a calming of the situation on the ground can be expected. Defense officials now give the impression that unless Hamas renews the firing, the Israeli army will not continue its attacks on Gaza.

Gaza's Health Ministry said a 25-year-old man, Naji Jamal a-Za'anin, was killed, and three others were wounded in the airstrikes.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad released a joint statement after the flare-up began, distancing themselves from the rocket launches. "We welcome the Egyptian effort to fulfill the Palestinian people's demand to remove the [Israeli] siege, and reject any irresponsible attempts meant to incite and sabotage the effort," the statement said.

Damaged ceiling and destroyed wall at home hit by rocket early on October 17, 2018.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Palestinian factions, it added, "will always be ready to deal with Israeli aggression" with the agreement with the Palestinian people.

Hours after the Israeli strikes, sources in Gaza reported that an agreement had been reached to reach an understanding with Israel and prevent an escalation.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot cut short his visit in the United States following the escalation on the southern border. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman ordered the closure of the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings into Gaza and a reduction in the permitted fishing zone off the coast of the enclave. 

The United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East, Nickolay Mladenov, called the rocket fire on Be'er Sheva a "dangerous escalation of the situation" that was consistent with "a pattern of provocations that seek to bring Israel and Gaza into another deadly conflict and confrontation." Speaking at a meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Mladenov said his office has been working to avoid war, to alleviate the humanitarian situation in Gaza and to seek to bring the Palestinian Authority back into control of Gaza. "I am afraid that there is no more time for words. Now is the time for actions."

The spokesperson of the European Union said in an official statement, "Indiscriminate attacks against civilians are completely unacceptable. The first priority now is for de-escalation."

Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid said Hamas should pay a "heavy price" for the rocket fire. "The IDF has a very large toolbox even without troops entering Gaza," he said. "We can handle it." Zionist Union Chairman Avi Gabbay took the government to task, saying that "the government has no strategy, plan or leadership that will allow us to win in Gaza."

'Total destruction'

A 39-year-old woman and her three sons, aged 9, 10 and 12, who were in the house, were all treated for shock. They hid in the house's bombshelter and remained unscathed. Two neighbors were lightly injured as they scrambled to reach a protected area. Police said their house might collapse as a consequence of the explosion.

Rocket sirens sounded at 3:39 A.M. in Be'er Sheva before the rocket struck the house. 

According to a source in the city's municipality, Home Front Command representatives said they believed the rocket was launched by a minor armed group, and Hamas was in turn taken by surprise. 

The woman whose home was destroyed by the rocket said her family now lacked basic items. "Nothing is left," he said. "Now the children have nothing. I don't even have the basics. I don't even have a bed left."

Be’er Sheva mayor Ruvik Danilovich visited the site of the attack alongside army officials from the Home Front Command. Schools will remain closed in the town as a security measure against a possible escalation in next hours. 

Police forces were first to reach the site and described "a scene of total destruction" adding that smoke was still visible over the house.

A doctor from the Magen David Adom also said the family had only just reached the reinforced room and locked the door when the loud explosion was heard and everything started shaking.

Earlier on Tuesday, Lieberman said Israel must decide if it is headed toward another war with Hamas in Gaza.

According to Lieberman, the security cabinet should order a military blow against the Islamist group "even at a price of moving to a wide-scale confrontation."

Israel does not intend to continue responding to violent incidents along the border as it has in the past, the defense minister declared. "My opinion is very clear. We must land a strong blow against Hamas. That's the only way to lower the level of violence to zero or close to zero," he said.

"Since we've allowed the United Nations to bring fuel [into Gaza], we have only gotten high-profile violence," he said. "We've reached a red line and now is the time to make decisions."

Defense officials have expressed the belief that a wide-scale confrontation in Gaza is not necessary. One senior official said Monday that in light of Gaza residents' situation, it would be difficult for the Israeli army to conduct combat operations in the Strip without Israel coming in for international criticism.