Gaza terrorists from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Popular Resistance Committees fired 19 rockets at Israel’s southern cities on Monday as the worst cross-border violence in months entered its fourth day. Four rockets struck unpopulated areas in Beersheba while a fifth, headed toward a civilian population, was intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. Six additional rockets were fired at Ashdod and Ashkelon – five were intercepted and one struck an open area. At least 10 of the rockets were fired in the span of one hour.
Since the onset of the clashes, immediately following the assassination of Popular Resistance Committees Secretary-General Zuhair al-Kaisi on Friday in Gaza, some 240 rockets have been fired at Israel, according to Army Radio.
Three mortar shells were also fired from Gaza, but exploded on the Palestinian side of the border near the Kerem Shalom crossing.
OC Home Front Command Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg, speaking to Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vaknin, assessed that the current round of violence would last several more days.
Meanwhile, Israel Air Force strikes in Gaza have killed 21 Palestinians, 19 of whom were terrorists, and wounded dozens more since Friday, the IDF Spokesperson said Monday afternoon on Twitter.
Monday’s rocket salvos were an apparent response to an IAF attack targeting what the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit have said was a weapon storage warehouse located in the basement of a residential apartment building. Palestinian sources said that at least 35 people were wounded, among them children, and one 15-year-old boy had been killed in the attack.
Army Radio quoted an Islamic Jihad statement as saying that the IDF air strike was a failed attempt to kill the commander of the organization’s northern Gaza missile unit.
Former Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz, who pushed the Iron Dome system through early roadblocks during his ill-fated term as defense minister in 2006, told Army Radio Monday morning that 13 Iron Dome batteries would need to be deployed in order to provide a complete defense blanket for Israel’s citizens from Gaza fire. “There is no argument,” said Peretz, “Iron Dome must be taken out of the debate over the national budget.”
On Sunday, southern residents were forced to spend yet another day running to bomb shelters under heavy fire. Some 60 rockets were fired from Gaza, 26 of which exploded inside Israel, this time with Beersheba bearing the brunt of the fire. Alongside the warning sirens and stress, rumors spread during the day that the sides had reached a cease-fire agreement, but those rumors were ultimately dispelled.
According to the situation briefing held by IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz with Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) head Yoram Cohen and other senior officers, a cease-fire was not yet on the horizon. Meanwhile, army and defense establishment leadership decided to continue hitting the rocket launching cells belonging to the Popular Resistance Committees and Islamic Jihad. Hamas officials, meanwhile, said that if the IDF were to expand its operations in Gaza, it would have to consider joining the fight, Israel Radio reported.
“The IDF responded and will continue to respond with force and determination to all [rocket] attacks targeting the state of Israel’s sovereign territory,” the chief of staff stressed at the Central Command changing of the guard ceremony. “We are prepared and ready,” Gantz added, “to protect our citizens and exact a heavy price for every attempt to disrupt their daily lives.”
Due to the situation in the south, Gantz canceled his planned trip to the United States this week, where he was scheduled to attend the annual dinner hosted by the nonprofit “Friends of the Israel Defense Forces” (FIDF).
Defense Minister Ehud Barak requested that residents of the south show patience. “The current round could take a while,” said Barak.
Chief IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai added that most of the rockets launched toward targets in the intermediate range were fired by the Islamic Jihad. According to Mordechai, “The [Islamic] Jihad understands it is crippled, and is therefore consolidating its capabilities in order to retaliate. The organization is an arm of the Iranians. It is completely funded and supported by Tehran when it comes to weapons and resources.”
Israel’s leadership, meanwhile, was not in a rush to accept a cease-fire proposal. Negotiations between the sides were taking place in secret, by the top advisers to the prime minister and the defense minister on the Israeli side and senior Egyptian officials accompanied by Hamas representatives who act as mediators for the different groups actively involved in the shooting. No group is willing to formally discuss a cease-fire and the current formula is “when the shooting stops, we’ll also stop, according to the accepted rules, which won’t prevent taking action if necessary.”
Despite the success of the Iron Dome defense system in intercepting some 90 percent of incoming rockets fired into its radius of defense, at least two Grad rockets managed to get through and hit Beersheba on Sunday. At around 3 p.m. a warning siren was heard throughout the city, followed instantly by an explosion in one of the neighborhoods as one of the Grads hit a sidewalk separating two homes.
Miraculously, only five people suffered shock-related symptoms. Several parked cars sustained some damage, as did the adjacent homes. Police officers and soldiers from the IDF’s Homefront Command arrived at the scene to tend to those suffering from shock and dispose of the remains of the Grad rocket, when the siren sounded again. This time, a Grad rocket hit the schoolyard at an elementary school. The school building itself sustained extensive damage, as did several nearby residences, serving as evidence of the immense tragedy that was narrowly avoided by the cancellation of classes across Israel’s southern cities.
“If that wasn’t a miracle, I don’t know what is,” said Mordechai, who lives adjacent to the school. “The fact that a Grad rocket landed in the schoolyard when school was out … prevented a horrible tragedy; it’s lucky and miraculous,” he said.
Following consultations with Homefront Command advisers, Beersheba Mayor Rubik Danilovich decided to cancel classes across the city on Monday as well. In addition, schools were also shut down in Ashkelon, Netivot, Ofakim and all communities within a seven to 40 kilometer (about four-25 miles) radius of the border with Gaza. The schools within seven kilometers of the border remained in session, as those regions are so regularly exposed to rocket fire that their school buildings are completely fortified and their campuses are familiar with proper defense measures.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled south on Sunday to witness an Iron Dome battery in action, and during the visit he met and encouraged the soldiers operating it. Netanyahu later traveled to Ashdod, accompanied by Southern regional council heads and emphasized that Israel would continue to take action in Gaza for as long as it takes.
“We will strike anyone who tries to, or actively hurts us. The IDF deals powerful blows time after time – that is our policy,” Netanyahu said.
Ashdod Mayor Yehiel Lasri told Netanyahu that the residents of the South would “back the government fully, and we offer our strength in order to allow you to make the necessary decisions.”
He went on to say, however, that “the fact that we are strong doesn’t mean that we resign ourselves to an ongoing nightmare. A sovereign state can’t agree to this kind of situation, in which every few months the citizens are forced to put their lives on hold.”
The prime minister voiced his sympathy, saying that the “combination of offensive capability, defensive capability and national resilience is a winning combination, and that is the combination that we possess.”