Israel pounds Gaza with airstrikes after rocket fire targets Tel Aviv
Dramatic flare-up in fighting sparks fear of another conflict just weeks ahead of Israel's general election
No damage or injuries were reported in Tel Aviv but the rare long-range attack on Thursday night sparked fears of another war just weeks ahead of a general election in Israel. It was the first time Tel Aviv has been hit since the 2014 Gaza conflict.
The rockets triggered sirens in Israel’s bustling commercial capital, which lies some 80km north of Gaza and is rarely affected by cross-border fire.
In retaliation on Friday morning, Israeli fighter jets struck areas controlled by Hamas across Gaza, injuring two people. It prompted a slew of rockets back into Israel, most of which were intercepted by its powerful Iron Dome missile defence system.
Past elections have also been preceded by Israeli military incursions in the Gaza Strip.
“[Israeli] fighter jets, attack helicopters and other aircraft struck approximately 100 military targets belonging to the Hamas,” the Israeli army said in a statement.
It added that it holds Hamas “responsible for all events transpiring in the Gaza Strip and emanating from it.”
In Gaza, the health ministry reported that a man and a woman were injured by an airstrike that hit Rafah, a town near the border with Egypt.
Hamas denied they were behind the Tel Aviv attack, saying the rockets were fired at a time when their officials were meeting an Egyptian security delegation to discuss arrangements for the Strip.
Islamic Jihad, another powerful armed faction in Gaza, also denied responsibility and later said they would hold fire if Israel did.
Palestinian families reported heavy fire throughout the early morning and posted photos showing explosions from airstrikes lighting up the sky.
“We were shaken awake by the bombing, our house was rocking,” Haneen Owda, 26, who lives in north Gaza, told The Independent.
“It has been intense all morning,” she added.
Organisers of the weekly “Great March of Return” protests along the Gaza border fence with Israel, meanwhile, cancelled planned Friday rallies due to the airstrikes.
The protests, calling for the right of Palestinians to return to land they were forced from or fled during the creation of Israel, often see Palestinians launch incendiary kites and balloons tied with explosives at Israel.
Israeli military forces have faced accusations by the United Nations of committing possible war crimes for firing back – killing nearly 200 people and injuring thousands.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, met security officials in the country’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv following the rocket fire on Thursday.
Ronen Manelis, the Israeli army’s chief spokesperson, said officials had no prior warning of the attack and were trying to pinpoint who was responsible.
The Israeli army later released a statement saying Hamas was responsible and posted footage of the attack’s aftermath on its official Twitter account.
Army intelligence officials later told The Times of Israel news website that the rockets were fired towards Tel Aviv “by mistake”.
“Low-level Hamas forces are believed to have been responsible for the launches,” the official said.
Egyptian mediators had been in Gaza, trying to hammer out details of an agreement between militants and Israel. They stepped out again on Friday to broker a ceasefire and together with the United Nations were in contact with both sides “to prevent the situation from spinning out of control”, a source with knowledge of the discussions said.
Ron Huldai, Tel Aviv’s mayor, ordered city officials to open public air raid shelters, but otherwise encouraged residents to proceed normally.
“Continue life as usual,” Mr Huldai told Channel 10 TV. “Be calm, but be alert.”
Mr Netanyahu has in recent months urged restraint but is facing mounting pressure from across the political divide to launch a full military operation in Gaza.
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s hardline education minister and a powerful coalition partner, called for “uncompromising pursuit and systematic neutralisation of Hamas’ leaders”.
“Regardless who is behind the firing tonight, Hamas bears responsibility,” he said in a statement.
“Anyone who shows restraint to missiles on Sderot [southern Israel] will get missiles on Tel Aviv. The time has come to defeat Hamas once and for all. I call upon the Prime Minister to instruct the [army] to present the Security Cabinet with a plan to defeat Hamas.”
Benny Gantz, Israel’s ex-army chief and Mr Netanyahu’s chief challenger in the upcoming polls, also urged action.
He called for “a significant and severe response” adding that otherwise “it would be impossible to renew our deterrence”.
Israel’s embattled prime minister is hoping to be elected for a fourth consecutive term in office, which would make him the longest-serving premier in Israel’s history. But he is running under the shadow of possible indictment on corruption charges.
He issued a warning to Hamas earlier this week, rejecting suggestions that Israel would be reluctant to pursue a “wide-ranging operation” in Gaza ahead of national elections next month.
“I suggest to Hamas, don’t count on it,” he said. “We will do anything necessary to restore security and quiet to the area adjacent to the Gaza Strip and to the south in general.”