GAZA CITY: Israel said Friday its aircraft struck dozens of Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip overnight in response to rockets from the Palestinian enclave, including rare fire toward its economic capital Tel Aviv.
The escalation follows weeks of growing tension and comes at an especially sensitive time ahead of Israel’s April 9 elections.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely believed to want to avoid a fourth war in the Gaza Strip since 2008 ahead of the polls, but the exchange of fire could quickly spin out of control.
Two Palestinians were reported wounded in Gaza, while no Israelis were known to have been injured.
Explosions could be heard throughout the night in Gaza, with strikes reported across the length of the 40-kilometre-long (25-mile) territory.
Late Thursday, sirens wailed throughout the bustling city of Tel Aviv, sending residents into bomb shelters in a reminder for Israelis of the 2014 war between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza.
Rocket fire toward Israel’s southern communities near the Gaza Strip is common, but Tel Aviv is rarely targeted.
It was unclear where those rockets landed, but Israel’s military reported no damage or injuries.
Video spread online appearing to show air defence missiles climbing into the sky above high-rise buildings as sirens wailed in the background.
Israel’s military, however, said “no interceptions were made” in that case.
Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai told local television that one of the Gaza rockets “apparently fell into the sea, the other hit somewhere but not in Tel Aviv”.
Hamas denies responsibility
Both Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs Gaza, and its ally Islamic Jihad denied they were behind the rocket fire toward Tel Aviv, raising the possibility they were launched by fringe groups.
But Israel’s military said they were launched by Hamas, and Israel in any case always holds Hamas responsible for violence from Gaza.
Netanyahu immediately met with defence chiefs at military headquarters in Tel Aviv afterwards, and Israel’s response began before dawn Friday.
A delegation from Egypt, which has acted as mediator between Israel and Hamas, was in Gaza before the strikes and reportedly left after warnings to do so.
Israel said its aircraft hit around 100 Hamas targets, including an office complex allegedly used by Hamas to coordinate militant operations in the occupied West Bank.
Another was “the main manufacturing site of standard-grade rockets in the Gaza Strip”, an underground location, it said.
A security source in Gaza said dozens of strikes targeted bases belonging to both Hamas and Islamic Jihad throughout Gaza.
More than 40 locations were targeted with about 100 strikes, the source said.
A couple was injured when their house was damaged in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, according to the source.
The Badr site of Hamas’s military wing, located near Hamas leader Ismail Haniya’s family home in Shati refugee camp on the outskirts of Gaza City, was damaged, with rubble strewn across the road, an AFP journalist said.
Hamdi, 22, who works in a bakery in Gaza, said “since the morning very few people have come compared to normal Friday mornings. People are afraid of bombs -– like in a war.”
Gaza residents reported a number of rockets being fired back at Israel in response.
Sirens rang out in southern Israel early Friday and the Israeli military said it identified four “launches” from the Gaza Strip.
Three were intercepted by missile defence systems, it said.
Almost daily exchanges between Israel and the Palestinian territory have threatened a wider escalation in hostilities over the past few weeks.
It comes with the one-year anniversary of mass protests and clashes along the Gaza-Israel border fence approaching on March 30.
An informal truce between Hamas and Israel had led to relative calm along the border, but recent weeks have seen another uptick in violence.
Netanyahu warned Hamas on Sunday that Israel would not hesitate to launch a “large-scale operation” in Gaza if provoked.
He said that while “rogue factions” were behind recent Gaza “provocations”, it “did not exempt Hamas” of responsibility.
“I’ve heard people in Gaza saying that since we’re in an election campaign, a large-scale operation is out of the question,” he said.
“I’d suggest to Hamas — don’t count on it.”
In October 2018, a rocket fired by Palestinians in Gaza fell into the sea off Tel Aviv and another hit the southern city of Beersheba.
In response to the October launch, Israel struck 20 targets in Gaza, killing one Palestinian, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
Prior to that the last attacks on the Tel Aviv area came during the July 2014 war between Israel and Gaza militants.