A 16-year boy was critically injured after a bus driving near the Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council was hit, apparently by an anti-tank missile, fired from the Gaza Strip on Thursday. He is currenlty being treated for severe trauma to the head, after sustaining shrapnel injuries.
An hour later the fire from Gaza continued, with more than 15 mortar shells launched at Israel. One of the shells exploded inside a town in Eshkol Regional Council. No injuries or damage were reported.
Afterwards three rockets were fired towards Ashkelon, and witnesses reported seeing one of them explode in midair, apparently due to interception by the Iron Dome defense system.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on an official visit to Germany, remarked on the violence in the south. "I have just received updates on this criminal attack," he said, but added that he was allowing officials in Israel to handle the outbreak.
Student bus hit by anti-tank missile (Photo: Tsafrir Abayov)
The bus was hit in the rear, causing its windows to shatter. Rescue forces were quick to arrive on the scene to evacuate the victims, and the roads were immediately blocked for fear of additional attacks.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the IDF to respond immediately, and Palestinian medics in Gaza reported soon after that Air Force craft had bombed a target east of Gaza City, killing a 50-year old man and injuring at least six people, including a child.
The army said its helicopters had bombed a number of targets, all of which were Hamas headquarters or areas from which rockets and mortars had been launched.
Barak's office stated that the defense minister ordered the strike because "he sees Hamas as responsible for every attack originating in Gaza".
Dr. Arnon Vizhenitzer, the lead doctor on call at Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, described the 16-year old victim's condition. "The boy came to us by helicopter, unconscious and on artificial respiration, and in very bad shape. He is suffering from multi-system injury and head trauma. He is being operated on by our best specialists, who are fighting to save his life," he said.
Hanania Reich, a paramedic who arrived on the scene, recounted the horror. "We were first to arrive together with soldiers. On the road lay a young victim, unconscious and bleeding. We began to resuscitate him and eventually MDA came and evacuated him by helicopter," he said.
"The driver was hysterical. He had shrapnel in his leg, he was lightly injured." Reich added that the front of the bus had also been hit.
Tamir, who got off the bus just a short while before it was hit, said the critically injured teen was the only one who remained on the bus when the missile hit it, aside from the driver.
"I think he caught a ride with the driver because when we got on at school he was already there," Tamir said. "The ride went to one of the kibbutzim and dropped students off there. When we got off at the kibbutz only he stayed on, he must have had to go somewhere else with the driver."
Tamir got off the bus and began to walk towards his family's place of business. "Then I heard blasts and more mortar fire started. I ran to the clubhouse, which has a bomb shelter, and now I'm here with a few friends," he said.
"It's really scary," the boy added. "There are Qassams and mortars all the time here, but it's the first time the incident was so dangerous. It could hit any one of us."
Ilana Cohen's only son, 13-year old Adir, also disembarked just moments before the attack. She said he had very nearly escaped being on board, but that she had told him to get off at home instead of continuing on to an after-school class.
"Now I know why I said it," she said. "The bus dropped him off, left the kibbutz, and 50 meters after got hit… This is my only son. I don't have any more to give to God. This is a very difficult situation."
Ronit, who was driving before the bus, narrowly escaped being hit. "I heard a blast and saw smoke," she said. "The thought that it could have been me was very scary. I just saw the smoke and realized we were under attack."
Minister of Science & Technology Daniel Hershkowitz, who is currently on a visit to the south, was rushed to a bomb shelter in one of the Negev communities.
"It's intolerable that, in a sovereign state, children are murdered and hurt every day," he said. "Israel must put an end to this and I will make sure the government of which I am a part makes the proper decision."
The fire from Gaza Thursday began a few hours after the Air Force bombed two smuggling tunnels in the northern Gaza Strip. The army said direct hits were identified. Palestinian sources reported that four people had been injured.
The security establishment has raised concerns about a dangerous new trend by which Gaza terror organizations use anti-tank missiles to target civilian vehicles inside Israel.
The missile fired on Thursday was the second anti-tank missile launched into Israel in 48 hours.
Unlike mortar shells and Qassam rockets, the anti-tank missile is extremely accurate and launching it requires a high level of skill.
Military officials noted that Palestinian terror organizations, headed by Hamas, need to understand that there are red lines that cannot be crossed.
"We will make it clear to them. We have a large toolbox and these violations will be answered with harsh means," said an IDF source.
Hanan Greenberg and Reuters contributed to this report