IDF retaliates after mortar shells fire from Gaza
10-12 mortar shells fired by Islamic Jihad at IDF post near Gaza border, leading army to attack Hamas, Islamic Jihad military positions in two separate attacks; mortar fire, which comes shortly after false Code Red alert sounded in the region; security officials stop Ashkelon-Sderot train lines, order all southern farmers to vacate fields, suspend work on border fence.
Mortar shells were fired at an IDF outpost north of the Gaza Strip Thursday afternoon by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, prompting retaliation from the army.
The shells followed earlier gunfire aimed at the post. The 10-12 shells that were fired fell in open areas near the outpost, and no one was hurt.
Moments after the mortar fire, IDF tanks and fighter jets attacked four Hamas lookout positions near Beit Hanoun on the northeast edge of the strip, which serves as a military stronghold for Hamas and the Islamic Jihad terror group.
Later, the IAF mounted a second attack against two targets in the central Gaza Strip, which Palestinian reports said were two Islamic Jihad military posts.
The Health Ministry in Gaza said three civilians were lightly wounded in one of the Israeli strikes.
The IDF said Islamic Jihad was behind the attack, which was revenge for the destruction of their border-crossing tunnel.
In the wake of the attack, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot held a situation assessment meet with the army's top generals.
"We know exactly who shot, on a personal level, their names," said IDF Spokesman Ronen Manelis. "It's safe to assume it is the same group that is operating in an organized manner, not from the gut, but with instructions from Damascus."
He said the mortar shell fire was targeting the IDF outpost and the nearby construction work on the Gaza obstacle project, which were stopped immediately afterwards.
Israel has been constructing a sensor-equipped underground wall along the 60-km (36-mile) Gaza border, aiming to complete the $1.1 billion project by mid-2019.
IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said Israel was not looking to escalate the situation but any further Israeli action would depend on what Gaza militants did.
"We remain ready with the tools necessary and the capabilities at hand should Hamas or the Islamic Jihad act aggressively again... We are not looking to escalate the situation or to initiate hostilities," Conricus said.
Security officials issued instructions to cease train operations between Ashkelon and Sderot, and farmers were ordered to vacate fields located around the Gaza region. In addition, all work on the Gaza border fence was suspended and IDF forces were ordered to leave the area.
One of the farmers evacuated from the area recounted the fire exchange.
"Five workers were working in the orchard in a plantation near the border. Suddenly there was a series of explosions, one after the other. We dropped to the ground and put our hands on our head. We thought we were being shot at," he recalled.
"The explosions lasted about five minutes. The moment they ended we picked up our tools and bolted. We were really scared. It was all very jolting."
Less than an hour earlier, Code Red rocket alerts, which turned out to be false alarms, were sounded in Sderot and Negev Regional Council.
A Palestinian was also shot dead before the Code Red alerts after a crowd of Palestinians began throwing rocks at a group of Israeli children visiting the Samaria region of the West Bank near the village of Qusra.
The incident is the latest in a number of skirmishes that have intensified tensions on the volatile border, rattling the already precarious ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas-ruled enclave.
Last month, the IDF killed several Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists when it carried out a controlled explosion of a terror tunnel that had penetrated into Israeli territory near the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis.
Shortly after, Hamas warned that Israel’s actions had constituted a “grave escalation.”
Similarly, Islamic Jihad issued a flurry of threats of retaliatory action against Israel, prompting the IDF to upload warnings to the terror group to refrain from escalating matter and deploying Iron Dome missile-defence batteries around the region and central Israel, including Tel Aviv.
Yoav Zitun, Matan Tzuri, Elior Levy, Asaf Zagrizak Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.