The casualties are two Bedouin shepherds. IDF sappers and police officers examined the site for a long time before deciding that an old mortar shell caused the blast.
Two other people were evacuated to the Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva to be treated for shock.
Earlier, three Qassam rockets were launched from the northern Gaza Strip toward the western Negev. There were no reports of injuries or damage in the incident.
Scene of lethal blast (Video: Dalit Shacham)
Large security forces were dispatched to the area and launched an investigation into the incident. The IDF is expected to check how the explosive device inside the shell was operated.
Rafi Babian, the Sdot Negev Regional Council's security officer, told Ynet that "it was a direct hit, which killed two shepherds. It was not a dud."
An eyewitness told Ynet: "I was standing very near and we occasionally heard explosions of the army. Suddenly we heard a stronger blast and chaos broke out in the area. We heard screams of several people who were apparently suffering an anxiety attack."
"When we arrived there, several minutes later, they were already dead, perhaps after suffering a direct hit. We were all removed from the area and are waiting for the army's instructions," the eyewitness said.
Deputy manager of Lachish District Magen David Adom, paramedic Moshon Vaknin, related the morning’s events.
“We were alerted by the IDF that a rocket had hit as a loud explosion was heard. We sent ambulances immediately, and the army arrived as well. We found an adult and a child wounded from the blast," he said.
"The injuries on their appendages and bodies were severe. They were hit very hardly, and all that we could do was to declare their deaths. The girl that was with them, the sister of one of the victims, was taken to the northern division for medical treatment and then to the Barzilai hospital. She appears to be suffering from shock,” he added.
Alil, a Bedouin shepherd tending his flock close to the site of the blast, said that many shepherds had come to the area with their animals for the pasturing season. Alil said that the victims of the explosion were members of a Bedouin family that came to the area two months ago.
“A lot of shepherds wander around here. I saw them in the past few days, all they wanted was just to be here with their sheep – and now this disaster happened,” he said.
Ajal Abu Samet said he heard the blast. “I was standing here near the base, and I heard a loud explosion and then I saw a young girl running towards the base. She was very frightened and yelled to me ‘My father and brother are hurt.’ I went with her and from a distance we saw the bodies and the smoke. We took her into the base to be treated. Then the second brother was also brought into the base.”
At first, the IDF thought a Qassam rocket had been fired from northern Gaza, but initial checks found no evidence of a rocket attack. The IDF has sophisticated devices which can identify within minutes the site a rocket was fired from as well as where it hit.
Tuesday’s deaths were the first rocket casualties since the IDF withdrew from the Gaza Strip, although terror organizations have greatly increased rocket launches in the past few months. The launch cells, generally members of the Islamic Jihad and the Fatah’s armed wing – the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, have aimed rocket fire on the city of Ashkelon, as they believe such an attack could cause the most damage, including psychologically.
The IDF has tried to minimize rocket attacks, mainly by massive artillery offensives on the launch sites as well as air force assaults. Asked recently about the army’s procedures against Qassam fire, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz praised troops’ cautiousness and alertness. As a rule, Halutz added, the IDF tries to locate all rockets which land in open areas and defuse them so they don’t cause future damage.
IDF kills wanted Palestinian in Jenin
Earlier Tuesday, IDF forces shot dead an armed Palestinian in al-Yamon, near Jenin; army officials said the Palestinian was a wanted terror suspect.
Palestinian sources said soldiers arrived at the home of the suspect, later identified as Samer Farihat of the al-Quds Brigades, Islamic Jihad’s armed wing, in order to detain him. Exchanges of gunfire ensued, and Farihat was killed.
According to the suspect’s family, the IDF did not permit an ambulance to transfer the Palestinian’s body from the Jenin hospital to his home village of al-Yamon.
Also on Tuesday, IDF forces apprehended nine wanted Palestinian terror suspects throughout the West Bank. During the operation to seize four suspects in Nablus, Palestinians opened fire at the soldiers, but no injuries were reported.
Three Tanzim members were detained in Qalqilya and Ramallah; in Bethlehem soldiers apprehended a Hamas member and another Palestinian who was carrying two knives, clubs and a sword in his car.
As Israelis cast their ballots, police forces are on the highest state of alert, as the defense establishment is dealing with 85 terror warnings, 14 of them concrete.
Islamic Jihad is the prime culprit and intends to carry out attacks using the group's terror cells in the northern West Bank, officials said.
Shmulik Hadad contributed to the report