VIDEO - About 67 Israeli soldiers were wounded after a Qassam rocket launched from northern Gaza landed on a military base in the western Negev early Tuesday morning. Four soldiers were seriously injured in the attack, seven sustained moderate wounds, about 20 were lightly hurt and the rest were treated for shock. This is the largest number of casualties to date resulting from a single Qassam attack.
Three rockets were launched at around 1:30 am, from the area of the Palestinian town of Beit Hanoun. Two of the rockets landed in open areas, but one landed in the Zikim base, about 1 kilometer north of the Gaza Strip, next to a tent containing several soldiers from a battalion in basic training.
The wounded, along with their battalion members, were scheduled to complete basic training mere hours after the attack took place.
Evacuating the wounded (Photo: Amir Cohen)
Magen David Adom reported sending 20 ambulances and two support helicopters to the scene. Casualties were treated at the scene and then transferred to Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheba, and Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer. In total, 65 soldiers arrived at the hospitals, some to be treated for shock.
IDF sources told Ynet that there were serious consequences as a result of a direct hit. "Sometimes there are direct hits, and then there are many casualties. That's what happened this time."
The tent that sustained the direct hit served as a makeshift meal tent and contained a number of soldiers at the time of impact. Several soldiers in an adjacent sleeping tent were injured from shrapnel and the force of the blast. Despite the rocket threat on the region, it had been decided at the beginning of training that the new recruits would continue sleeping in tents.
The attack on Zikim was claimed by the Salah a-Din Brigades - the military arm of the Public Resistance Committees. Abu Mujahad, the organization's spokesman, told Ynet that the brigades had launched two rockets into Israel.
Shortly afterwards, the al-Quds Brigades – Islamic Jihad's military wing – also claimed responsibility for the lethal rocket and said they would release further details during a celebratory press conference later in the day.
Islamic Jihad operatives celebrated the attack in their mosques in Gaza later Tuesday morning, using loud speakers to announce the number of casualties. The operatives promised to continue similar activities.
IDF forces in the area identified only one rocket when it was launched, which landed in a Gaza vicinity community near the base. The area where the rockets landed has formerly been the target of several rocket attacks and, consequently, fortification projects were being undertaken in the region.
In December 2005, the Zikim base itself sustained a rocket attack. As a result of intense parental pressure, the military decided to build fortifications on base, including cement walls surrounding the tent compound.
While it was decided not to fully fortify each tent, military sources stated they believe the structures prevented a much larger catastrophe from occurring.
Confusion on base (Photo: Amir Cohen)
Nonetheless, Yosi Namir, a Zaka member who was one of the first to arrive on the scene, described the events as "truly severe... The rocket had landed on a tent. Many of the soldiers on base were sleeping at the time, which increased the panic. We assisted MDA in helping the wounded. Everything is a mess, soldiers shouting, calling for help."
Orr, a medic on the base told Ynet: "We heard the 'Color Red' warning system. I ran towards the tents. There was complete hysteria… I think some of the people didn't realize what was happening. You need to remember, these were not seasoned soldiers."
Zikim base is connected to the 'Color Red' alert system, but the time gap between the sirens and Tuesday's rocket hit was only a few seconds, such that the soldiers, most of who were sleeping, did not have time to protect themselves.
The incident Tuesday occured after a brief respite from Qassam attacks, which the IDF had attributed to Hamas' desire to keep a low profile in order to concentrate on arming themselves, strengthening their position internally and expanding 'terror studies'.
Given the attack, it is unclear whether the IDF will change its current policy of pinpoint incursions to deal only with 'ticking bombs' in Gaza. "A military operation is not a trivial thing. We need to take several considerations into account, including casualties on our side. As such, the decision is not a simple or easy one," a military source told Ynet Tuesday.
Military sources also emphasized that although, "such an incident renews questions of how to act, we need to remember that we're not operating against only Qassams and any military action needs to target terror of all kinds.
"Even if we go out on a particular operation, there's no guarantee that rocket fire will come to a total halt," the sources added.
AP, Shmulik Hadad and Ali Waked contributed to this report