Israeli jets hit targets in Gaza in response to escalation of rocket fire

Israeli warplanes struck Gaza overnight in response to a rocket attack on southern Israel. (Reuters)

Israeli air force jets struck targets in the Gaza Strip Saturday in response to rockets fired by Palestinian militants into Israeli territory during the weekend, the Israeli military said in a statement on Sunday.

According to local news media reports, nine targets, including a weapons-manufacturing site and rocket launchers belonging to the militant Islamist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, were hit. Rocket fire from Gaza and Israeli airstrikes continued Sunday. Local news reports said that at least one militant was killed in Gaza and several more were injured

Hamas, which controls Gaza, has said it is not behind the rocket attacks and blames smaller, more radical groups in the seaside enclave. Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist organization, said it holds the group responsible for the rocket fire, or at least for not preventing it. On Saturday, two rockets destroyed a factory in the Israeli city of Sderot. No serious injuries were reported.

During the past two weeks, there has been a sharp increase in the number of rockets fired at Israel from Gaza. The Israeli army said close to 50 have been fired, with about half hitting Israeli territory, compared with 13 rockets in May.

Israel has responded with numerous airstrikes targeting what it calls “terrorist sites” across Gaza. On Friday, Israel carried out a “targeted killing,” hitting two operatives it said belonged to a Palestinian militant group.

Addressing the Israeli cabinet on Sunday morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned, “We are ready to expand this operation as per need.” He added that he held the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, which recently reached a deal on a unity government with Hamas, equally responsible for rocket fire from Gaza.

The escalation in tension between Israel and Gaza comes in the wake of the abduction of three Israeli teens in the West Bank on June 12. Israel says it has evidence linking Hamas to the kidnapping. On Thursday, Israel released the names of two Palestinian suspects in the abduction. They remain at large and are alleged to be Hamas members.

Israel has carried out a wide-ranging military operation in the West Bank as it searches for the teens, including arresting hundreds of Hamas supporters and severely weakening the organization’s infrastructure.

“Hamas is trapped in its need to react to the operation that has dismantled its infrastructure and in [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshal’s threat to start a third intifada,” said Israel Ziv, a former head of the army’s operations branch, referring to the violent Palestinian uprisings of the late 1980s and early 2000s.

Ziv said that despite the Saturday night start of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, the Israeli army could opt to conduct a big military operation in Gaza — similar to large-scale action taken by Israel in 2012 and in 2008 and 2009 — if needed.

“There are a lot of political voices in Israel calling to take the opportunity and go directly to the Hamas leadership in Gaza, so definitely such an escalation could happen if the army has no other choice,” he said, adding that such a move depended on whether Hamas could restrain itself.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Sunday that Israel should consider reoccupying the Gaza Strip in response to the rocket fire, the newspaper Haaretz reported.

“We need to decide whether we are going to choose the alternative, which is full occupation of the strip. We have seen that limited action only strengthens Hamas, and therefore the alternative is clear,” Lieberman said in an interview on Israel’s Army Radio, according to Haaretz.

Ruth Eglash is a reporter for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.

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