More than 65 rockets were fired into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, wounding five people, two of them seriously, and causing extensive property damage.
Two Thai foreign workers in their 20s were seriously hurt when a rocket exploded directly into a chicken coop in the Eshkol region, and a third foreign worker sustained light shrapnel wounds at the scene. A Border Policeman also sustained light injuries in a separate salvo nearby. Several people were treated for shock. All the victims in the area were evacuated to Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba.
In the Ashkelon region, another woman was lightly wounded while running to a bomb shelter.
The Iron Dome missile defense system was able to successfully intercept seven rockets fired over populated areas south of Ashkelon.
The rockets scored direct hits on seven homes, with one home sustaining extensive damage. One occupant of the home was treated for shock, but no other injuries were reported.
Schools surrounding the Gaza Strip border were closed on Wednesday, as was Sapir College in Sderot. Crossings between Gaza and Israel were shut down following the exchanges of fire. By Wednesday afternoon, Israel Radio reported that Hamas was evacuating many of its compounds in the Gaza Strip in anticipation of escalating Israeli strikes.
Following consultations on Wednesday, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz decided to scale back participation in the current joint Israel-U.S. aerial defense drill. "In light of the escalation in the south, and a concern that the situation could further deteriorate as a result of IDF actions, it is important that the military is ready for any scenario in Gaza," said one defense official.
Another official said the forces taking part in the drill are trained to seamlessly shift from drill mode to operational mode, should the need arise.
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Army Radio Wednesday that rocket fire from the Gaza Strip would elicit a harsh response. "The IDF is strong and can do anything that the government of Israel decides," he said. "Unfortunately, there is no talking to Hamas."
Reacting to calls by residents of the south for the government to intervene forcefully and stop the rockets, Barak said it was "important that the government think before it decides. The next step will bring escalation, not containment. There is no way to accept terror coming out of Gaza. We are examining all the options. If there is no other choice, and the fire continues, they will get hit hard. Nothing is impossible, including a ground operation if necessary" Barak added.
"In the past, things were much worse when there was no Iron Dome," he concluded.
Leader of the Opposition Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz, a former IDF chief of staff and minister of defense told Israel Radio on Wednesday that Israel should target the Hamas leadership. "There is no Israeli deterrence and that's why Hamas can do what it's doing," Mofaz said.
The ongoing rocket fire began Tuesday night as soon as the Emir of Qatar wrapped up his visit to the Gaza Strip. The rocket barrage prompted a swift Israeli response, involving tanks as well as aircraft. One Hamas gunman was killed in the third round of air strikes Wednesday, after the first two rounds the previous day killed three terrorists. The Popular Resistance Committees said one of its members died in one of the airstrikes.
One of the rockets hit a house, causing no injuries, and one of the airstrikes struck a mosque in the southern Gaza village of Khouza for the second time in several weeks.
Much of the fighting has been between Israel and smaller terrorist groups. But the military wing of Gaza's Hamas rulers and a smaller terrorist group claimed credit for the rocket and mortar fire Wednesday.
In a statement, Hamas and the Popular Resistance Committees said "these holy missions come in response to the repeated, continuous crimes of the enemy against our people, which killed four and injured 10 in the past 48 hours."
The strikes came hours after the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, left the coastal enclave following a one-day visit on Tuesday in which he became the first head of state to break the isolation of the Hamas leadership in Gaza.
The initial airstrikes came in response to an incident along the Gaza Strip border Tuesday morning, in which an explosive device planted near the border fence detonated during a routine IDF patrol, seriously wounding Company Commander Capt. Ziv Shilon.