Palestinian Islamists launched at least 45 rockets and mortar-shells from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip at Israel’s southern communities over the weekend.
“It is currently quiet in the south, but if it is not maintained, Gaza will be severely damaged,” warned Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, stressing that “those responsible will be Hamas leaders. The equation is known to them and very clear. The IDF is prepared for the possibility of escalation, and we will do what is necessary to maintain calm.”
The worst violence between the sides in months comes amid a surge of clashes in Jerusalem during observance of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. There have been dozens of arrests and injuries in Arab street fights and clashes with riot police and far-right Israeli activists.
Defense Minister Gantz made the comments following a round of consultations with IDF Chief-of-Staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, and other senior defense officials.
Lt. Gen. Kochavi cancelled a slated visit to the United States next week expected to focus on the Iranian nuclear dispute amid heightened concern over the latest violence.
According to a statement TV7 obtained from the Israeli Ministry of Defense, Gantz emphasized the importance of troop readiness and of consolidated operative plans in the event of continued escalation, while also highlighting the centrality of home front readiness” while maintaining communication with regional authorities near the Gaza border.
“We will do what is necessary to maintain peace,” reiterated the top defense official, underscoring “Israel’s fundamental and universal respect for freedom of worship, as well as its commitment to doing whatever necessary to protect its citizens.”
A barrage of 36 rockets were indiscriminately launched at Israel on Friday night, forcing tens of thousands of Israeli civilians into bomb shelters within the IDF Home Front Command’s instructed 15 seconds. The Iron Dome anti-missile system successfully intercepted 6 of the incoming projectiles aimed at highly-populated areas.
IDF fighter jets and attack helicopters retaliated with strikes on several military targets belonging to the Hamas terror organization in Gaza including an underground infrastructure and rocket launchers, said the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. The IDF also reinforced Iron Dome batteries across southern Israel.
Gaza rocket attacks resumed after a brief 15-hour hiatus on Saturday, with 1 missive intercepted above the skies of Sderot, 2 that fell in uninhabited areas, and 1 that failed to cross into Israeli territory.
Another spate of overnight attacks occurred last night, with the Iron Dome intercepting 2 out of the 6 fired rockets. 4 Israeli civilians were lightly injured while seeking shelter, including a heavily pregnant woman who was hospitalized for treatment.
In response to the rocket launches, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) Maj.-Gen. Rassan Alian ordered full closure of the fishing zone off the shore of Gaza starting at 6 AM this morning until further notice.
“Hamas bears responsibility for everything that is done in and out of the Gaza Strip and it will bear the consequences for the violence committed against the citizens of the State of Israel,” read in a statement TV7 obtained from the COGAT Spokesperson’s Unit.
Both Hamas and the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terror groups claimed responsibility for the attacks, which they said came in support of what they referred to as the “Palestinian uprising in Jerusalem.” A small paramilitary group affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine also claimed that it had fired some of the rockets.
Thousands of Palestinians marched across the Gaza Strip on Friday, calling for the continued firing of rockets.
Hamas Chief Ismail Haniyeh asserted that “all Palestinians are ready to defend Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque at any price.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “ordered preparations for any scenario,” following the rare convening of a security cabinet meeting on Saturday night. “First of all, we want to ensure law and order. We are maintaining freedom of worship as we do every year, for all residents and for all visitors to Jerusalem,” said the Israeli leader, underscoring that, “At the moment we demand compliance with the law and I call for calm on all sides.”
Other participants in the situational assessment meeting included Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Kochavi, Shin Bet Security Agency Director Nadav Argaman, National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat and Israel Police Commissioner Yaakov “Kobi” Shabtai.
As part of efforts to de-escalate tensions in the Israeli capital, police were instructed to permit the gathering of Islamist youth at the flashpoint Damascus Gate entrance into the Old City. Thousands filled the East Jerusalem plaza late last night to celebrate their perceived victory.
“I am pleased that the police coming to this conclusion because we don’t need anything but to open the street. You know, people coming, families, after the prayer, they want to sit here, hearing storyteller, eating something, drinking coffee or something and usually at midnight they went home peacefully,” local Arab resident Hussam Abu Eisheh told Reuters, saying “This is what we need in Ramadan.”
Spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement Hussein Hamayel, said the outcome “proved the strength and composure of our great people” against Israel, the IDF and settlers.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem also hailed it as a victory. “The youth of Jerusalem forced the occupation to remove the checkpoints,” he told Reuters.
Clashes broke out again, however, as Israeli police made attempts to confiscate Palestinian flags being waved by the crowd. Rioters chanted “With Spirit and Blood we will liberate Al-Aqsa (Mosque)” and hurled glass-bottles, rocks and firebombs at police, who responded with crowd-dispersal means. The Police Spokesperson’s Unit confirmed to TV7 that 12 suspects were arrested on charges of violence.