Escalation feared after rare rocket strike near Tel Aviv wounds Israelis
MISHMERET, Israel (3rd UPDATE) – A rocket from Gaza hit a house in a rare strike north of Tel Aviv on Monday, March 25, wounding 7 Israelis and leading Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cut short a Washington trip while vowing a forceful response.
The rocket from the Palestinian enclave and expected Israeli response come at a highly sensitive time just ahead of Israel's April 9 elections.
Israel's army said the rocket was fired by Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip, from the Rafah area in the south of the territory.
A Hamas official, speaking to Agence France-Presse (AFP) on condition of anonymity, denied the group was behind the rocket, evoking the possibility it was caused by "bad weather."
The official said the same message had been passed to Egypt, which has acted as mediator between Israel and Hamas.
Egypt was working to head off severe Israeli retaliation, the official said.
Israel however made it clear it was preparing a firm response, announcing it was sending two additional brigades to reinforce the Gaza area and carrying out a limited call up of reservists.
Israeli roads near the Gaza Strip were closed and farming activities in the area were halted.
Netanyahu, currently in Washington, said he would return home after meeting US President Donald Trump later Monday, cancelling an address to pro-Israel lobby AIPAC's annual conference on Tuesday, March 26.
Israel also closed its people and goods crossings with the blockaded Gaza Strip and reduced the zone in the Mediterranean it allows for Palestinian fishermen off the enclave, a statement said.
The house hit was located in the community of Mishmeret, around 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Tel Aviv, police said.
The rocket would have had to travel some 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Rafah to hit there.
Rocket fire from Gaza at that distance is rare.
The hospital treating the wounded said 7 Israelis were injured lightly by burns and shrapnel, including 3 children.
One of the wounded was a six-month-old child and 6 of them were members of the same British-Israeli family.
The house was destroyed in the wake of the rocket and subsequent fire, with burnt wood, a children's toy and other debris piled at the site.
Islamic Jihad warning
Police spokesman Ami Ben David said air raid sirens wailed at around 5:15 am and the home's residents made their way to a safe room, possibly saving their lives.
The rocket crashed through the roof and then exploded when it hit the floor, he said.
"I woke up hearing the sound of the explosion," said neighbor Yuval Katz Lass, 18. "People were shocked and panicked."
Netanyahu said "there has been a criminal attack on the state of Israel and we will respond with force."
Hamas's ally in Gaza, Islamic Jihad, said it would respond to any "aggression," without commenting on who may have been responsible for the rocket.
The rocket comes after mounting tensions in recent weeks.
Israel and Hamas have fought 3 wars since 2008, and Netanyahu is believed to want to avoid another one with unpredictable results ahead of the elections.
But he faces a tough challenge from a centrist political alliance led by former military chief Benny Gantz and came under pressure to react firmly.
Gantz asked on Twitter, referring to corruption allegations against Netanyahu, whether the prime minister would "finally focus on the security of the citizens of Israel instead of dealing only with his legal concerns."
In a speech to AIPAC on Monday, Gantz commended Netanyahu's decision to return to Israel and said he would do the same later in the day.
Monday's incident follows another rare one on March 14 in which two rockets were fired from Gaza towards Tel Aviv.
No damage or injuries were caused, but Israel responded to that and further rocket fire by hitting what it said were around 100 Hamas targets across the Gaza Strip.
Four Palestinians were reported wounded in those strikes.
Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad denied they were behind the March 14 rocket fire towards Tel Aviv, raising the possibility they were launched by fringe groups.
Israel's military said they were launched by Hamas, but later Israeli media reported the army's preliminary assessment was that they had been fired by mistake during maintenance work.
The reports were a sign Israel was seeking to calm tensions. The military refused to comment on them at the time.
Israel did not appear willing to accept such an explanation Monday.
The incident also comes ahead of the first anniversary on Saturday, March 30, of Palestinian protests and clashes along the Gaza Strip's border with Israel.
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's visit to the United States is set to include Trump's formal recognition of Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which it seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Breaking with longstanding international consensus, Trump said last week the United States should recognize Israeli sovereignty there. – Rappler.com