GAZA, Israel — Dozens of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip crashed into southern Israel on March 12 in the heaviest wave of rocket fire emanating from Gaza since 2012. The Israeli military responded by launching airstrikes against militant targets in Gaza, the impoverished Palestinian coastal enclave that is ruled by the armed Islamist movement Hamas.
The recent rocket fire in the Gaza Strip — and the Israeli response that it precipitated — is likely to escalate tensions between Israel and Hamas, which have been rising since the Israeli military said the previous week that it had intercepted a ship carrying Syrian-made rockets bound for Palestinian militants in Gaza.
The barrage began in the early evening on March 12, when militants in northern Gaza launched more than 30 rockets at southern Israel, triggering “code red” warning sirens in Israeli communities adjacent to the Palestinian enclave.
A spokesman for Israel’s military said eight of the rockets crashed into urban civilian areas and that others were shot down by the Jewish state’s Iron Dome short-range missile defense system. One rocket exploded close to a gas station, while another of the unguided missiles crashed down near a public library. There were no casualties.
Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant group, took responsibility for the attack, which it said was in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike on March 11 that killed three of its members. “The rocket fired today came in response to the occupation aggression against us and does not mean the collapse of the ceasefire agreement [with Israel],” a spokesman for the group told the BBC.
Israel’s military said it launched the airstrike against the Islamic Jihad members after the militants fired mortars at Israeli troops. The military wing of Islamic Jihad, the al-Quds Brigades, said the Israeli soldiers had been inside Gaza when its fighters launched mortars at them.
The Popular Resistance Committee, another militant group, said it also fired several rockets in Wednesday’s attack, during which dozens of rockets were launched from the southern outskirts of Gaza City, according to witnesses cited by the BBC.
In response to Wednesday’s rocket barrage, the heaviest since an eight day conflict between Israel and Gaza militants ended in November 2012, the Israeli military targeted “two terrorist locations” with artillery strikes, according to military spokesman Lt. Col Peter Lerner.
There were nine Israeli airstrikes across Gaza targeting facilities run by the al-Quds Brigades and by the military wing of Hamas, the anti-Israeli Islamist movement that has governed the densely populated coastal strip since 2007. Although Hamas was not involved in the rocket attacks, Israel holds the militant group responsible for all rocket fire that emanates from Gaza.
Tensions between Hamas and Israel escalated when the Israeli military said it had seized a Panamanian flagged vessel off the coast of Sudan carrying dozens of Syrian-made M-302 rockets destined for Palestinian militants in Gaza.
Israel accused its longtime nemesis Iran of orchestrating the weapons shipment, which it had been tracking for months as it made its way from Damascus to Tehran and then onto a boat bound for the Port of Sudan. Hamas denied any connection to the shipment, with a spokesman for the armed Islamist group characterizing the Israeli accusations about Iranian weapons shipments to Gaza as a “silly joke.”
Israel captured the Gaza Strip (along with the Sinai Peninsula) from Egypt in the 1967 Six Day War, when it also seized control of the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1982 and unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but continues to occupy the West Bank and East Jerusalem, home to more than 100 Jewish settlements that are viewed as illegal under international law. In 2007, Hamas took over Gaza after beating Palestinian Authority security forces dominated by Fatah, the secular Palestinian faction supported by the west, in a brief war.
Sources: Al Jazeera, BBC News (1), BBC News (2), Israel Defense Forces
Photo: Vos Iz Neias