A tense calm permeated southern Israel on Sunday following the firing of more than 30 rockets and mortars over the weekend which killed one Israeli, and severe IAF retaliation which left nine Palestinian terrorists dead. On Sunday afternoon reports emerged that the Islamic Jihad, which has taken responsibility for several of the rocket attacks, has accepted an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz on Sunday afternoon was conducting a security evaluation together with the Southern Command and the commander of the IDF's Gaza Division Brig. Gen. Yossi Bachar. Gantz instructed the IDF to formulate responses for all possible scenarios that may arise during the escalation. IDF officials said that Israel's response to continued rocket-fire will be gradual. During the first stage, the IAF focused on eliminating rocket-launching sites belonging to the Islamic Jihad.
Islamic Jihad, the terrorist group with offices in Damascus and financial backing from Tehran, said it had agreed, and was committed to an Egyptian-mediated cease fire but that it reserves the right to respond to any Israeli strikes on Gaza, Israel Radio reported.
"When all jet fighters leave the skies of Gaza we will stop firing rockets," said Dawud Shehab, a senior member of Islamic Jihad.
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The statement comes as cities in southern and south-central Israel remained on heightened alert on Sunday, after several barrages of Grad rockets and mortars were fired into Israel on Saturday and early Sunday morning, killing one Israeli and wounding several others. Israel retaliated with air force strikes on six targets in the Gaza Strip overnight Sunday, killing nine Palestinian members of Islamic Jihad.
Reports of the ceasefire follow conflicting reports that emerged earlier Sunday. Egyptian officials said they succeeded in reaching a deal between Israel and terror groups in Gaza that was supposed to go into effect on Sunday at 6 a.m. local time. However, the Associated Press later reported that Egyptian efforts to secure a truce had failed. Rocket fire on Israel continued into the morning hours Sunday, with at least three rockets fired at Israel after the 6 a.m. starting time for the truce, the IDF Spokesperson's Unit said.
On Saturday, Israeli cities including Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gan Yavne and regional council areas of the Negev came under fire, with one rocket exploding into a school in Ashkelon that was empty at the time. The latest escalation began last week, when Palestinian terror groups fired Grad rockets into the country on Wednesday night.
At least 11 Qassam rockets and mortars exploded since midnight Saturday in parts of the Negev and near the coastal city of Ashkelon, Army Radio reported. No injuries or structural damage were reported. The Iron Dome missile defense system also successfully intercepted two Grad rockets fired at Ashdod on Sunday morning.
Earlier Saturday, Ashkelon was among the hardest-hit areas from the rocket fire. Two Grad rockets struck the heart of one of its neighborhoods. Two people sustained shrapnel wounds, one of whom, identified as Ami Moshe, later died at the city's Barzilai Medical Center.
Moshe, a 50-year-old resident of Ashkelon, was driving his car when the Code Red alert siren sounded, but he wasn't able to find cover in time. He was hit by shrapnel from one of the rockets after he got out of his car.
"After the victim was brought to the hospital, it turned out his wounds were much more serious than we originally thought," one of the emergency room staff members said. "The doctors tried to stop the bleeding and to treat his injuries, but his condition deteriorated until he ultimately died of his wounds."
Moshe, a father of four, is to be buried on Sunday at 2 p.m. in Ashkelon.
According to Army Radio, at least five other Israelis were wounded in the weekend barrage of rocket fire: One is listed in moderate condition, two are in light-to-moderate condition and two others were lightly wounded.
The incident in Ashkelon was further aggravated by the fear that gas tanks near the site of the explosion would ignite and damage adjacent residential buildings.
Ariella Omer, who witnessed one of the rockets explode near her house, said, "After we saw a fire erupt, we knew there were gas tanks nearby. We were scared there would be an explosion that would send all of our homes flying into the air."
"It is so awful that we have to return to the terrible days when rockets are fired at innocent civilians," said Adina Cohen, an Ashkelon resident who lives on one of the streets that was struck by a Grad.
Residents of the towns and communities bordering the Gaza Strip and the Lachish region in south-central Israel said the damage from the rocket fire could have been much worse. At around 7 p.m. on Saturday, a Grad rocket struck the parking lot of a multistory building in central Ashdod, severely damaging nine cars that went up in flames, but wounding no-one.
Earlier that day, two additional rockets were fired into Ashdod, one of which struck an empty school building. A prayer service that had been scheduled to take place at the site half an hour before the time the rocket hit was canceled at the last minute by the synagogue caretaker who fell ill that day.
Police Commissioner Insp. Gen. Yohanan Danino on Saturday night met with top officials from the southern district and Maj. Gen. Nissim Mor, head of the Operations Department of the Israeli Police to assess the situation. They decided to raise the alert level to three, one level below the maximum.
Israel retaliated to the ongoing rocket fire by striking targets in the Gaza Strip on Saturday and overnight Sunday, killing nine Palestinian terrorists in separate strikes on multiple targets. A senior Islamic Jihad commander, Ahmed al-Sheikh Khalil, and four additional operatives who had overseen the production of bombs and rockets for the group were killed mid-day Saturday, while four other Islamic Jihad gunmen were killed later that day. The IDF Spokesperson's Unit confirmed direct hits on several rocket launching sites, terror tunnels and terrorist squads in the northern and southern Gaza Strip.
Addressing the recent escalation, IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai on Saturday said it was unclear how long this fresh round of fighting would last. However, he did say, "Islamic Jihad was dealt a heavy blow. So far they have ten dead, among them Sheikh Ahmed Khalil, a member of the organization's supreme military council, and several wounded."
When asked about the malfunction of the Iron Dome missile-defense system, Mordechai said that the Iron Dome battery failed to intercept Grad rockets fired at Ashdod due to a "technical glitch," not human error.
The recent escalation shattered a relative lull in violence that had followed the prisoner exchange less than two weeks ago between Israel and Hamas rulers in the Gaza Strip. As part of the prisoner exchange, more than 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners were freed for Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit. The deal has yet to be completed, however, as half of the Palestinian prisoners are expected to be released within two months.
The IDF said that Hamas was not actively involved in the recent rounds of rocket fire, but said the group bore ultimate responsibility "for any terrorist activity emanating from the Gaza Strip."
Islamic Jihad, meanwhile, on Sunday said it would not recognize any Egyptian-mediated cease-fire and vowed revenge following the killing of its commander and operatives.
"There is no chance of speaking about a truce now, following such a big crime against leaders of the group," Islamic Jihad spokesman Abu Ahmed said Saturday, according to Reuters.
The group released images of what it said was the firing by its men of a truck-mounted multiple rocket-launcher, a platform not previously seen in Gaza.
Israel says Gaza arsenals have been boosted by gun-running from Libya since the fall of its ruler, Moammar Gadhafi.
"We are at the start of an escalation and we do not know how long it will last," Col. Doron Mor-Yosef, Homefront Command southern district commander, said on Saturday. "Our assessment at this stage is that the fire will not stop, and we expect the escalation to last for at least the next 24 hours."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday spoke with several mayors of southern towns, and promised them that, "The harsh response from the IDF, which hit three cells of rocket launchers, will be even stronger if necessary."
In a letter sent to U.N. Security Council President U. Joy Ogwu last week, Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Ron Prosor asked the U.N. and the international community to address and condemn the recent rocket attacks.
"At the same time that Israel takes bold steps to expand commercial activity and advance international development in Gaza, terrorists use the area as a launching ground for attacks against the Israeli people. The constant rain of rockets on our cities dramatically alters daily life. Dozens of Israelis were treated for shock last night. This morning, more than 3,000 Israeli children were kept out of school to ensure their safety. No people should have to live under such a specter of terror."
He continued, "Preventing this illegal activity is an integral part of Security Council resolution 1860, but it receives hardly any attention from the international community. The rocket fire emanating from Gaza represents a flagrant violation of international law. It must be addressed with the utmost seriousness. Israel expects the Security Council, the secretary-general, and the international community to condemn all of these attacks immediately and unequivocally. The people of Israel, like any other people, deserve to hear these acts of terror condemned with unmistakable clarity."
Speaking at the opening ceremony Bar Ilan University's new Faculty of Medicine in the Galilee, President Shimon Peres on Sunday said that "Hamas claims it controls Gaza, therefore it must bear the harsh consequences of its actions." He added that "rocket attacks from Gaza almost amount to a declaration of war and violent groups must not endanger the safety of us all."
Meanwhile, the Homefront Command has instructed Israelis to cancel any gathering of more than 500 people in southern Israel. Mayors in southern and south-central communities and regional council areas also decided on Saturday to shut down local schools following the weekend rocket salvoes and after conducting a situation assessment with Col. Mor-Yosef of the Homefront Command.
Schools and kindergartens will remain closed Sunday in Ashdod, Gan Yavne, Kiryat Malachi, Be'er Tuvia, and in the Hof Ashkelon, Merhavim and Bnei Shimon regional council areas. Schools in Beersheba, Netivot and Ofakim will also remain closed.
Around 40,000 students and hundreds of staff members at higher education institutions will also not start the new academic year as scheduled due to the recent escalation. Ben-Gurion University, Sapir College near Sderot, Ashkelon Academic College and two additional colleges in Beersheba were set to begin classes on Sunday, but the opening day has been postponed.
Officials at the Education Ministry's southern district said students would be able to continue their studies and complete assignments online in the meantime.
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