Israel Strikes 100 Targets in Gaza in Response to Rockets Fired at Tel Aviv

Israeli army assesses that militants mistakenly fired rockets at Tel Aviv during maintenance work ■ Weekly Gaza border protest canceled ■ Three additional projectiles launched from Gaza to southern Israel Friday morning

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A Palestinian inspects the damage of destroyed building belongs to Hamas ministry of prisoners hit by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City, early Friday, March 15, 2019.
A Palestinian inspects the damage of destroyed building belongs to Hamas ministry of prisoners hit by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City, early Friday, March 15, 2019.Credit: AP

The Israeli army attacked some 100 targets in Gaza Thursday overnight in response to two rockets being fired at Tel Aviv from the Strip the evening before, a first since the 2014 war. According to a preliminary army assessment, the rockets were fired at Tel Aviv by mistake during maintenance work.

The army said the Iron Dome missile defense system was activated as a result of the launches. It is assumed that the rockets landed in open areas due to the fact that no damage or injuries were reported. The last time rocket alerts were activated in Tel Aviv was two years ago, in what turned out to be a false alarm. The flare-up comes three weeks before Israel holds its general election on April 9.

In an unusual move, the organizing committee for the March of Return in Gaza announced Friday morning that it called off the weekly protest along the Israel-Gaza border in light of the flare-up. The committee said in a statement that the protest, which has been held every Friday since last March, was canceled in an effort to prevent further escalation and Palestinian casualties.

>> Read more: Israel and Hamas on the war path | Amos Harel ■ Shock attack pits Netanyahu against Gaza at risky political time | Chemi Shalev ■ On Israel's Gaza border, praying for an end to Netanyahu's 'Hamas government'

Following the tumultuous night, Egyptian mediators said a cease-fire took effect at 8 A.M. on Friday local time, sources in Gaza told Haaretz. The Associated Press reported that a Hamas official confirmed the cease-fire. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the Islamic militant group is yet to announce, said Egypt-led meditation efforts "have apparently paid off."

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The flare-up follows weeks of tensions, with the most recent exchange taking place Saturday night when a projectile was launched at Israel. In response, the Israeli army carried out several airstrikes in the Strip, targeting several Hamas posts.

As of Friday morning, the Israeli army believed with increasingly certainty that the rockets fired at Tel Aviv were launched accidentally. According to a preliminary assessment, militants mistakenly fired two M-75 Fajr missiles while carrying out maintenance work at 9:07 P.M. while the Palestinians factions of Gaza met with Egyptian mediators.

While the army already suspected as much while the attack was still ongoing, it holds Hamas accountable for any type of violence coming from the Strip, and acted accordingly.

The army's sources include members of the intelligence community in Egypt who met with the Palestinian factions at the time, as well as statements released by the militant groups to the media claiming that they were not responsible. The heads of the Palestinian factions were reportedly surprised to hear of the launch, and the Israeli army had no intelligence that Hamas or Islamic Jihad had any intention of firing toward Israel, let alone the Tel Aviv area.

The sky glows orange during an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, March 15, 2019.Credit: AFP
Palestinians inspect the damage of destroyed building belongs to Hamas ministry of prisoners hit by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City, early Friday, March 15, 2019.Credit: AP

Most initial analyses placed the blame on Hamas, pointing fingers at the organization's violent suppression of protests in Gaza against it earlier in the day. Later, others held Islamic Jihad responsible, explaining that the group was trying to put a strain on the Egyptian mediation efforts and show that they, too, are a central player in the Gaza Strip. 

Rockets over Tel Aviv

Around 9 P.M. on Thursday, rocket sirens blared throughout Tel Aviv and Israelis reported hearing blasts in the area. Military spokesman Ronen Manelis told Channel 13 News that "we did not have advance knowledge of this fire today, and in fact it surprised us."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also acts as defense minister, held an emergency security consultation in army headquarters in Tel Aviv. According to a political source, the meeting ended Thursday overnight with some "decisions made." 

An Egyptian security delegation departed Gaza at Israel's request following the rocket fire and Gaza media outlets reported that Hamas evacuated military posts. A Palestinian source in Gaza told Haaretz that the rockets were fired from the northern part of the enclave, but that it was unclear which group initiated the fire. Hamas said it is looking into the shooting, vowing to "take measures against those responsible."

Representatives of the United Nations and Egypt were "in contact with all concerned parties, including Israel, to prevent the situation from spinning out of control," sources said.

The Israeli military said it attacked nearly 100 Hamas "terror targets" in Gaza Thursday overnight in response to the rockets fired at Tel Aviv. These included Hamas' headquarters in Gaza City, an underground rocket facility and several military posts.

The Gaza Health Ministry said that four people suffered light injuries as a result of the strikes. Two were wounded in Gaza City, and a man and a woman were wounded in their Rafah home. No other casualties were reported. 

Meanwhile, rocket alarms sounded in Israeli communities near the Gaza border, but the Israeli army said the launch that triggered it failed and that the rocket landed within Gaza.

Shortly thereafter, sirens sounded in the southern Israeli town of Sderot and throughout the regional council of Sha'ar Hanegev. The IDF said four projectiles were launched from Gaza, three of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome. 

'Terrorists must pay personal price'

Jason Greenblatt, U.S. President Donald Trump's envoy to the Middle East, condemned Hamas and other Gaza-based terror organizations for the escalation in a series of tweets.

"Hamas, PIJ and PFLP are all running for the hills (tunnels) denying responsibility for the rockets tonight," he tweeted. He also noted that earlier the same day, Hamas violently suppressed demonstrations against the group within the Gaza Strip "with live bullets, beatings and detentions. Hamas causes much suffering in Gaza!"

Education Minister Naftali Bennett of Hayamin Hehadash said Hamas should bear responsiblity for the rocket fire. "No matter who stands behind tonight's rockets, Hamas should be held accountable," he stated. He also called on Netanyahu to form a plan to assassinate Hamas chiefs. "I call on Netanyahu to order that the IDF present the cabinet a plan to defeat Hamas."

Former army chief and leader of Kahol Lavan party Benny Gantz called the fire "severe" and argued Israel must respond with "significant and harsh" means in order to "renew its deterrence." He said: "This adds to ... many incidents we've experienced in recent months. We must act decisively against this breach of Israel's sovereignty and security."

Kahol Lavan co-leader Yair Lapid tweeted the rocket attack was “An unacceptable act of aggression." He said "No government would accept attacks like this and Israel is no different. We will not tolerate any breach of our sovereignty and have the absolute right to respond with force and protect the people of Israel."

Former defense minister and Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman referred to Israel's cash transfers to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, saying "Just this week the government approved the transfer of additional $20 million to Hamas. Even another 'protection' payment doesn't bring quiet. On the contrary, it leads to further provocations ... Terrorist leaders must pay a personal price."

Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg responded Friday morning to reports that the Hamas missile launches on Thursday night were accidental. “I couldn’t not think this morning about what would happen if we descended into another ‘accidental’ war. The last thing Israel needs is another war," she said. She also made reference to "those who discover their courage on the battlefield, but lose it in politics, and prefer to come out with all these unecessary declarations about the need to respond severely to strikes,” referring to Gantz.

The Israel Police said it was not going to take special precautionary measures until it receives instructions to do so by the government. Local governments across Israel announced schools would operate regularly on Friday.

The Tel Aviv and Rishon Lezion municipalities both announced that they would open the cities' public shelters. Nonetheless, public events in Tel Aviv are proceeding as planned, including a basketball game of Maccabi Tel Aviv attended by more than 10,000 people.

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