Reporter covering Israel and the Palestinian territories
March 25 at 11:14 AM
JERUSALEM — Israeli military jets began striking targets in the Gaza strip Monday in response to earlier rocket fire from the Palestinian enclave that hit a family house near Tel Aviv, injuring seven Israelis and prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cut short a visit to Washington.
The Israeli leader, who arrived in Washington on Sunday, announced he will return to Israel immediately after meeting with President Trump at the White House Monday morning.
“This was a criminal attack on the State of Israel, and we will respond with force,” said Netanyahu, who is also the defense minister, in a short video clip from Washington. He said he had been briefed by the heads of Israeli security and that he would return to conduct Israel’s response.
Netanyahu, who is in the midst of a fierce battle for reelection with Israelis going to the polls in less than 15 days, was also scheduled to give a keynote address at the annual AIPAC policy forum conference Tuesday morning and participate in a celebratory state dinner with Trump at the White House Tuesday evening.
Meanwhile, Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s main rival in the April 9 national election, did take center stage at AIPAC. The former military chief of staff introduced himself Monday morning to a U.S. audience, delivering a speech that both commended the prime minister for deciding to return home to deal with the security escalation and calling for unity.
“If we want hope, we must have unity; if we want security, we must have unity; Throughout history the only way we have won is by being united! Unity is our past, and unity must be our future!,” he told a welcoming crowd.
In Israel, the military announced it was reinforcing troops in the area with two additional brigades, one infantry and one armored, and calling up “a limited number” of reservists for specialist units. It said Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza, was directly responsible for firing the rocket.
Later the army announced it was blocking all routes adjacent to the security fence with Gaza and called on farmers in the area to stop their work.
Images from the scene of the rocket strike showed the house which was badly damaged, its roof caved in. Mika Lifshitz, a military spokeswoman, said it was hit by a self-manufactured rocket with a range of around 75 miles. She said Israel’s antimissile protection system, the Iron Dome, protects the area, but could not comment on whether it was deployed.
Robert Wolf told reporters if his family had not gone into a bomb shelter in time, his wife, son, daughter-in-law, daughter and two young grandchildren would have surely been killed in the blast that destroyed their home.
“This is the real price, and I just paid it,” he said. “I nearly lost my family. If we hadn’t got to bomb shelter in time then I would be burying my entire family.”
Paramedic Assi Dvilanski, who was one of the first responders to arrive on the scene, said the family house was fully destroyed, with its roof completely blown away.
“It’s a miracle that no one got killed,” he said. He described treating family members at the scene for burns and injuries consistent with explosions before transferring them to a hospital.
Reuven Hazan, professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the rocket attack and an escalation in tensions with Hamas could be damaging to Netanyhu politically.
“Unlike in previous elections, this is the first time Netanyahu is facing a party that is led by people who are more prominent than him on security issues,” Hazan said. Two of the other top leaders in Gantz’s Blue and White party are former military chief of staffs.
“When it comes to diplomatic relations, no one can beat Netanyahu,” said Hazan. “He came to Washington because he wanted to focus on his status of almost being on par with the leader of the free world, who this week gave him a foreign policy bonus of the Golan Heights announcement, but now he is not staying like Benny Gantz, and he realizes that this security situation could go either way.”
Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a former deputy director at the National Security Council, said Netanyahu faces a “delicate challenge.”
“When there was intensive rocket fire on the southern area that borders Gaza, Israel found a workable modus vivendi, involving transfer of Qatari money to Hamas, if Netanyahu now reacts aggressively, then people will say the blood of those in the center of the country is thicker than in the south. If he does not respond, then he’ll be criticized for not doing anything in the face of brazen provocation,” he said.
Netanyahu has been criticized by members of his own government coalition for being too soft on Hamas. In November, he agreed to a mediated cease-fire with the group after a spate of rocket attacks from Gaza toward communities in southern Israel. His political opponents have also criticized Netanyahu’s decision to allow Qatar to deliver $15 million a month into Gaza to pay salaries of Hamas civil servants.
Neither Hamas nor Islamic Jihad immediately claimed responsibility for launching the rocket, though a Hamas official told the group’s al-Aqsa television station the rocket was fired as a result of “natural factors.” It was unclear what factors he was referring to.
One anonymous Hamas official told news agency AFP it could possibly have been caused by “bad weather.”
In Gaza, the factions were bracing for a harsh response from Israel. A joint statement from Gaza’s resistance movements said Monday “any possible Israeli escalation in the Gaza Strip would be met by an immediate response.”
Tensions in the impoverished strip have been high in recent weeks as residents have taken to protesting extreme poverty, and Hamas has been criticized for heavy-handed tactics in cracking down on the unrest. Gaza has faced a sea, land and air blockade by Israel for more than a decade, and Egypt, which is its neighbor to the south, has also sporadically imposed such restrictions.
Saturday marks one year of weekly deadly protests by Gaza residents at the border fence with Israel. Dubbed the Great March of Return, the protests were initially intended to help win international recognition of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their former homes, which sit within Israeli territory and ease restrictions on the Strip.
Hamas had used the march as a tool to ramp up pressure on Israel amid stalled cease-fire talks brokered by Egypt and the United Nations that would have allowed more investment in Gaza. In recent days, it has sent flaming balloons into Israel, according to the Israeli military. The group had agreed to stop such actions under an interim deal that allowed Qatari money into the enclave, which expires in weeks.
But domestic pressure has been building against Hamas, and analysts say the strain increases the need for the militants to deflect attention back toward Israel. In recent weeks, protests against the dire living conditions in the Strip have been suppressed by the group, whose security forces have used batons and live ammunition to break up demonstrations.
Roughly 75 percent of Gazans are registered by the United Nations as refugees, descendants of an estimated 750,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes when Israel was created in 1948. Many still live in one of Gaza’s eight refugee camps, according to a U.N. assessment.
A recent U.N. report found that some 189 Gazans were killed by Israeli forces during 2018. The U.N. Commission of Inquiry criticized Israel’s rules of engagement in dealing with the protesters and said the majority of the Palestinians killed “did not pose an immediate threat of death or serious injury to others when they were shot.”
Israel has said the protests, which are ongoing, are particularly violent and could act as a cover for Hamas to infiltrate Israel and carry out attacks.
Although rocket launches from Gaza are not unusual, Monday’s rocket strike was the second time this month to target the major city of Tel Aviv. Israel and Hamas fought a 50-day conflict in the summer of 2014.
Earlier this month, following reports of two rockets fired toward Tel Aviv from Gaza, the Israeli military responded by striking more than 100 targets in the coastal Palestinian enclave.
No injuries or damage to properties were reported on March 14 when the two rockets hit near Tel Aviv, but rocket sirens were activated, sending thousands of Israelis in the most populous part of the country into bomb shelters.
In a follow-up assessment, the Israeli military said it believed Hamas was responsible, and Israeli media reported later that the Army’s initial assessment was that the group launched the rockets by mistake.
Morris reported from Washington.