Palestinians fired at least 38 rockets and more than 18 mortar shells from the northern Gaza Strip towards southern Israel on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. One rocket hit a house in the Sdot Negev Regional Council and another hit a factory in the Eshkol Regional Council, causing heavy damage. In total, some 31 people suffered shock.
The same factory was hit by several mortar shells in the early afternoon hours. A number of people were treated for shock.
At least seven rockets were fired at Ashkelon and five at the city of Netivot. Rockets landed near Netivot's industrial zone, a residential neighborhood in Ashkelon and the city's southern industrial area.
The Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon reported that 24 people, half of them children, arrived at the hospital in a state of shock on Wednesday.
Earlier, other rockets landed near a factory in Ashkelon's industrial zone and near a recreation center in the city.
Following the ongoing rocket fire, Defense Minister Ehud Barak instructed the defense establishment to cancel the planned transfer of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip. On Tuesday, Israel decided to allow the delivery a limited amount of humanitarian equipment at 11 am Wednesday, but the crossings are now slated to remain closed.
Two rockets hit Ashkelon at around 8:25 am. Four rockets landed near the city of Netivot.
Netivot Council Member Ron Stern told Ynet, "There were two Color Red alerts. This is not the first time we hear an alert in the city, but it stresses us out each time. We ran into the fortified room, and then came out and tried to return to routine, but there was another alert and we returned to the shelter. Then we heard a boom.
"It's Hanukkah, the kids are on vacation and this overclouds the holiday spirit. The alert was sounded when they were asleep and at home, and this raises difficult feelings."
Rocket landing site in Ashkelon (Photo: Amir Cohen)
Four Qassams were fired at around 7:30 am. Two of the rockets landed in the Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council limits, one landed in the Ashkelon Coast Regional Council and one on Palestinian territory. Another rocket landed within the Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council at around 9:50 am.
There were no reports of injuries in all incidents, but the Israel Defense Forces reported that a house in a kibbutz belonging to the Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council sustained damage from a rocket fired overnight. A mortar shell hit the roof of a building in a military base.
The al-Quds Brigades, the Islamic Jihad's military wing, claimed responsibility for Wednesday morning's rocket fire.
Some of the mortar shells which hit the Eshkol Regional Council landed in agricultural fields. The secretary of one of the kibbutzim in the area said that a number of agricultural workers suffered shock.
"We'll take all possible safety precautions, particularly in order to protect laborers working near the fence," he said. "We always coordinate with the army before going out to the field. We won't stop out work. We are talking to the workers and helping them calm down. They anxiety is justified."
Michal, an Ashkelon resident, said that "after the alert we heard two landings in the area – one far away from my house and one very close. The house's walls trembled. Once against we are ducks on the shooting range."
Ashkelon mayor calls for 'tough response'
Benny Vaknin, the new mayor of Ashkelon, spoke to Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai on Wednesday morning and conveyed a firm message: "The response must be extremely tough."
He also threatened that all schools would go on strike after the holiday if the city's educational institutions are not fortified.
Vaknin said the decision to cancel the aid transfer into the Strip was insufficient. He believes Israeli must distinguish between the Grad missiles fired at Ashkelon and the Qassam rockets fired at other areas.
"The fire directed at Ashkelon is essentially different. A Grad missile can contain 8 kilogram (17.6 pounds) of explosives and can cause injuries and great damage. If such a missile were to land inside a school, God forbid, a disaster could take place.
"The Grad missiles are only fired by Hamas men, which means there is an intentional policy here by the Hamas government, and therefore we should respond accordingly. We agreed to hold a work meeting with Vilnai and defense establishment officials in the coming days."
Qassam rocket in Netivot (Photo: Roy Idan)
According to Vaknin, he has no intention of turning a blind eye to the rocket fire directed at his city, as opposed to the past. He has already declared that any Grad missile fired at Ashkelon would lead to the closure of all educational institutions in the city.
"I demand that they start fortifying all education institutions in Ashkelon immediately. There are 30,000 pupils and students in the college here, and contrary to what people have said – not one school in Ashkelon is fortified.
"We demand that they begin the fortification now, and I don’t care about the costs. If the rocket fire continues without a response, we'll consider taking very harsh and tough measures and won't turn a blind eye. We recently appointed a team to deal with this issue until a state of calm returns to the region."
Meanwhile, the CEO of the Magen David Adom emergency services raised the organization's alert level to the second highest degree. Some 120 ambulances are ready to be dispatched to rocket landing sites throughout the area.
On Tuesday afternoon, an IDF patrol killed three terrorists who were seen approaching the security fence on the border with Gaza, adjacent to the Israeli community of Netiv Ha'asara, located just north of the Hamas-controlled enclave. No injuries were reported among the troops.
The terrorists were trying to plant an explosive device along the fence when an IDF outpost identified them and dispatched soldiers from the Paratrooper Brigade's 101st Batallion to the scene.
The force crossed into Gaza and made its way toward the terrorists. An exchange of fire ensued, during which the terrorists succeeded in detonating a bomb near the soldiers and throwing a grenade in their direction.
Six Qassam rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip on Tuesday. The sixth rocket landed near an educational institution in the Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council. There were no injuries.
Meanwhile, the efforts to reach understandings on renewing the half-year truce between Israel and Hamas continue. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met Tuesday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and the two discussed the Egyptian efforts to resume the lull.
"We won't agree to an Israeli invasion in Gaza or even an aerial attack," Abbas said at the end of the meeting.
One of Hamas' leaders, Mahmoud Al-Zahar, said Tuesday that his organization was willing to renew the truce in Gaza if Israel adheres to the terms that have been agreed upon last June.
Speaking with Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram, al-Zahar said that the movement would reassess the situation in Gaza once the 24 hours during which Hamas vowed to halt rocket fire come to an end.
Hanan Greenberg and Ilana Curiel contributed to this report