At least one person was killed and three others were wounded Tuesday night when central Israel was hit by a massive wave of rocket fire from Gaza, shortly after Hamas warned of a barrage on the Tel Aviv area if the IDF did not halt airstrikes that hit civilian buildings within the Gaza Strip.
The barrage began shortly before 9pm, sending Israelis in cities and communities across the center of the country into bomb shelters, reinforced rooms and even stairwells. Rockets also struck communities close to the Gaza border.
Sirens wailed in multiple locations in the center of the country, and 50-year-old woman was killed a rocket strike in Rishon Lezion, just south of Tel Aviv.
In nearby Holon, an empty bus was hit by a rocket and went up in flames. Medics said three people, including a 5-year-old girl, were wounded.
Booms could be heard and windows shook as the Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted scores of rockets in the skies above the center of the country.
Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv and Wolfson Medical Center in Holon treated a total of 26 people, most with minor injuries.
Hamas said it launched a total of 130 rockets, its most intense strike so far, in response to Israel's destruction of a high-rise building in Gaza earlier in the evening.
The sound of the outgoing rockets could be heard in Gaza. As the rockets rose into the skies, mosques across Gaza blared with chants of "God is great," "victory to Islam" and "resistance."
Speaking after the barrage, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday night that militants in the Gaza Strip would "pay a very heavy price."
"We are at the height of a weighty campaign," Netanyahu said in televised remarks as he stood alongside Defense Minister Benny Gantz and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi.
"Hamas and Islamic Jihad paid and will pay a very heavy price for their belligerence. Their blood is forfeit."
Israeli officials expressed surprise at the volume of rockets fired on Tuesday night.
Senior sources said that Israel has not ruled out a ground operation in the Gaza Strip, in addition to the ongoing airstrikes.
"The cabinet directed the army to put together the option for a ground operation, but there is not much appetite at present for this," the sources said.
"The cabinet instructed the military to restore Israel's deterrence against Hamas and Islamic Jihad but the rocket attacks this evening on Tel Aviv and the Dan region show that this objective is far from being reached."
The IDF told residents of the Tel Aviv area to remain in their bomb shelters overnight.
Ben-Gurion Airport, just outside Tel Aviv, was briefly shut down due to the rocket fire.
Videos showed projectiles fired from the Gaza Strip being intercepted by Iron Dome close to the airport.
Flights were diverted to Cyprus and Greece as it initially remained unclear how long the airport would remain closed. Outgoing flights were postponed.
In a statement, the Israel Airports Authority said that the airport had been shut down “to allow defense of [the] nation’s skies.”
A short time later, the airport reopened to arriving planes.
In Holon, the air bore a lingering smell of explosives for a time after the barrage and interceptions.
"If the enemy persists in bombing civilian towers, then Tel Aviv will have an appointment with a harsh missile strike that exceeds what happened in Ashkelon," Abu Ubeidah, spokesman for the Hamas armed wing, said Tuesday evening.
The Palestinian Islamic Jihad said Tuesday evening that it would begin firing rockets at Tel Aviv at 9pm.
The 13-story residential building in Gaza was hit by an Israeli airstrike soon after the Hamas threat, and quickly collapsed to the ground, witnesses said.
The tower housed an office used by the political leadership of Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas.
Residents of the tower and people living nearby had been warned to evacuate the area around an hour before the airstrike, witnesses said. It was not immediately clear if the building had been fully evacuated, or if there were casualties.
The barrage was the second massive wave of rocket strikes fired at Israel on Tuesday. Hours earlier, more than 130 rockets were fired at the south, killing two women in Ashkelon and wounding . Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after two women were killed in Ashkelon on Tuesday afternoon that Israel would step up its attacks on Gaza and that Hamas "will now be dealt blows that it did not expect."
The two women were both died when rockets hit homes in the southern city of Ashkelon -- the first deaths in Israel in the current round of violence. More than 100 people were wounded in what Hamas said was its largest ever salvo from Gaza.
One of the women was later named as Soumya Santhosh, a 30-year-old Indian national from Kerala who was working in Israel and the mother of a nine-year-old son.
According to Indian media reports, Indian MP Dean Kuriakose was in contact with the Israeli authorities to repatriate her body.
The IDF Spokesperson's Unit said Tuesday evening that over 480 launches were detected from Gaza in the previous 24 hours, with more than 200 projectiles intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system.
Israel conducted a series of attacks inside Gaza on Tuesday, some of which were targeted strikes against Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) commanders. Many storage facilities and rocket launching platforms are located in and around civilian buildings.
The IDF and Shin Bet domestic security agency said that the head of the PIJ's rocket unit, Samih al-Mamluk, was killed in a direct airstrike. Other senior members of the organization were also killed in the attack, including Mohamad Abu al-Atta — brother of the military commander of the PIJ's Northern Brigade in Gaza Bahaa Abu al-Atta who was assassinated by Israel in late 2019.
PIJ confirmed the three who were killed in an airstrike on a hideout apartment in Gaza City were senior members of its armed wing and vowed retaliation.
The army also said it had killed Eyad Shrir, the head of the Hamas anti-tank units. The terror group has yet to confirm his death.
Since sundown Monday, 28 Palestinians -- including 10 children and a woman-- had been killed in Gaza, most by airstrikes, health officials there said. The IDF said at least 16 of the dead were militants.
Meanwhile, an Egyptian delegation was planning to mediate between Israel and Gaza in an effort to reach a ceasefire, according to a report by the Dubai-based Al Arabiya network.
According to the report, Cairo asked Israel halt all airstrikes in Gaza unconditionally. In return, Israel asked Egypt to halt the rocket fire from Gaza.
Egypt has reportedly contacted the Palestinian terror groups in Gaza on the matter.
First published: 20:37, 05.11.21