Israel says its warplanes attacked Hamas facilities in the southern Gaza Strip early Friday morning local time in response to a rare rocket attack on the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, as the sides appeared to be hurtling toward a new round of violence.
The rocket attack Thursday night caught the Israeli military off guard and marked the first time that Tel Aviv, some 80 kilometres north of Gaza, has been targeted since a 2014 war. Though the attack caused no damage or injuries, it was a significant escalation and set the stage for a tough Israeli reprisal.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called an emergency meeting with his military chief and other top security officials. Shortly after, Israeli warplanes attacked targets in southern and central Gaza.
The blasts were so powerful that smoke could be seen in Gaza City, 25 kilometres away from some of the strikes. Israeli warplanes could be heard roaring through the skies above Gaza City.
In a statement early Friday, the Israeli army said “we can confirm” that Hamas carried out the rocket attack.
Earlier, Hamas and many smaller Palestinian groups strongly denied responsibility.
Israeli retaliatory airstrikes continued through early Friday local time while sirens warning of incoming projectiles from Gaza sounded in southern Israel.
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Israel and Hamas are bitter enemies and have fought three wars since the Islamic militant group seized power in Gaza in 2007. Smaller flare-ups have occurred sporadically since Israel and Hamas fought their last war, in 2014.
Cabinet Minister Naftali Bennett, a hardline rival of Netanyahu’s, called on the prime minister to convene a gathering of his Security Cabinet and demand the army “present a plan to defeat Hamas.”
Likewise, Hamas has come under rare public criticism in Gaza for the harsh conditions in the territory. An Israel-Egyptian blockade, combined with sanctions by the rival Palestinian Authority and mismanagement by the Hamas government, have fueled an economic crisis in the territory. Residents have little desire for another war with Israel.
Earlier Thursday, Hamas police violently broke up a small protest over the harsh living conditions.
Israel holds Hamas responsible for all fire coming out of the territory. Hamas possesses a large arsenal of rockets and missiles capable of striking deep inside Israel.
But with Gaza’s economy in tatters, the group has been seeking to preserve calm.
Hamas denied responsibility for the attack on Tel Aviv, saying the rockets were launched when the group’s military wing was meeting with Egyptian mediators to try to strengthen a cease-fire with Israel.
Hamas criticizes rocket fire
In an unusual step that indicated Hamas was attempting to prevent further escalation, the Hamas interior ministry said the rocket fire went “against the national consensus” and promised to take action against the perpetrators.
Earlier this week, Israel struck Hamas targets in Gaza in response to rocket fire on southern Israel, near the border. Late Thursday, local media said that Egyptian mediators left the territory.
In addition to Hamas, Gaza is home to other militant groups. They include Salafists inspired by ISIS, as well as Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-backed armed organization that also possesses a formidable rocket arsenal. The Islamic Jihad also denied involvement in Thursday’s attack.
Earlier this week, Netanyahu issued a warning to Hamas, rejecting suggestions that Israel would be reluctant to take tough action in Gaza ahead of national elections next month.
“I suggest to Hamas, don’t count on it,” he told his cabinet. “We will do anything necessary to restore security and quiet to the area adjacent to the Gaza Strip and to the south in general.”