As US President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were sitting down to an intense two-hour meeting in Jerusalem early Wednesday evening, a Palestinian Grad rocket was launched from northern Gaza towards Israel.
The rocket crashed into a women's health clinic on the second floor of a busy shopping mall in central Ashkelon just before 6:00 pm, wounding 15 people and burying several shoppers under piles of rubble.
MDA paramedics dispatched to the scene fought to extract those trapped under large pieces of debris, including four people who were evacuated in serious condition, including a mother and her 2-year-old daughter, and 11 more who suffered from moderate wounds.
Medical personnel also treated 62 people for shock at the scene.
The Salah al-Din Brigades, the military wing of the Popular Resistance Committees, claimed responsibility for the attack. A spokesman for the group, Abu Abir, told Ynet: “This attack was intended as a message to Israel that if it continues to escalate the situation and reject the ceasefire proposal, Zionist residents of southern Palestine will continue to live under danger of mortal peril and this will be their own government’s responsibility.”
Ashkelon shopping center after attack (Photo: Amir Cohen)
The attack, said Abu Abir, was dedicated to Palestinian refugees marking 60 years since the 'Nakba.' "We promise Palestinian refugees scattered all over the world - you will return to your homes that were robbed from Palestine in 1948," he said.
The Jihad Jibril brigades, the military wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, have also claimed responsibility for the attack.
Ambulances rushed the wounded to the nearby Barzilai Hospital, among them a young girl who is in moderate condition and two infants who sustained light injuries. The girl's mother is also said to be among the wounded. Paramedics also tended to several people who suffered from shock.
The rise in rocket barrages has been deadly for southern Israel. 70-year-old Shuli Katz was killed by a Qassam rocket on Monday while visiting relatives in a small community in the Eshkol Regional Council and 48-year-old Jimmy Kdoshim of Kibbutz Kfar Aza was killed by a mortar shell last week while standing outside his home.
Alert system was deactivated
The IDF confirmed it had identified the rocket being launched in real time, and following reports from local residents in Ashkelon that the alert sirens had failed to sound prior to the attack - admitted the system had been disconnected as of late, due to a large number of false alarms.
(Photo: Amir Cohen)
According to defense officials, the system has been intermittently deactivated based on daily security assessments that rely on intelligence information and only in coordination with the political echelon. The policy will be reconsidered due to the attack this evening, they said.
Officials from Ashkelon's municipality said they were looking into the option of bringing up neglect charges
against the IDF Home Front Command.
The army said the rocket was launched from an area adjacent to the town of Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza, a frequent base for staging attacks.
Just before midnight on Wednesday, the IDF launched an airstrike against a Hamas cell in Gaza City. Two Hamas gunmen were reported killed. Palestinian sources also said that the army was firing artillery rounds towards a target near Beit Lahiya.
Ali Waked, Meital Yasur-Beit Or and Hanan Greenberg contributed to this report