IDF prepares for Gaza escalation, closing roads and halting farming near border
Gaza border communities cancel after-school activities, as army urges local residents to 'follow security instructions'; sources in Strip say they believe Hamas has misjudged severity of Israeli reaction to rocket strike
The Israel Defense Forces said Monday afternoon that it will halt agricultural work near the security fence that runs along the border with the Gaza Strip "to improve readiness" for an escalation after a pre-dawn rocket attack destroyed a house in the center of the country and wounded seven people.
The IDF's Gaza Division said it would block routes and areas on the Israeli side of the fence and requested that residents "follow security instructions as long as necessary."
Thousands of acres of farmland lie adjacent to the Gaza frontier, swathes of which were set alight over the past year by incendiary and explosive devices attached to balloons and floated across the border.
These attacks continued Monday after the rocket fire.
The road closures were the latest signs of a potential IDF response to the rocket fire.
Earlier in the day, the army deployed infantry and armored corps units to the Gaza border, and began calling up reservists from Iron Dome and intelligence units.
Israel now believes that Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, was behind the rocket launch, and said that it would "respond forcefully" to a "criminal attack."
IDF Spokesman Ronen Manelis told a press briefing Monday morning that the rocket was fired from the Rafah area of southern Gaza - a range of 120 kilometers. According to the IDF, the rocket that struck the home is a self-manufactured Hamas rocket.
"The rocket fire was carried out by Hamas from a Hamas position. We see Hamas as being responsible for everything that happens in the Gaza Strip," the army said. The terror organization seized power in Gaza in 2007, and has ruled the Strip ever since.
"I concluded a telephone consultation with the IDF chief of staff, the head of the Shin Bet (security service) and the head of the National Security Council. There has been a criminal attack on the State of Israel and we will respond forcefully," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"In light of the security events I have decided to cut short my visit to the US. In a few hours I will meet with President Trump; I will return to Israel immediately afterwards in order to manage our actions at close hand."
In addition, local authorities in all the communities bordering the Gaza Strip cancelled all after-school activities for Monday.
Israel found support Monday from the US, with Trump's special envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt, writing on Twitter: "We condemn this violence from Gaza & affirm Israel’s right to defend itself."
Again an attack on Israel from Gaza. Again a rocket fired at a major metro area in Israel, which hit a home causing its collapse & injuring 6. We condemn this violence from Gaza & affirm Israel’s right to defend itself.— Jason D. Greenblatt (@jdgreenblatt45) March 25, 2019
The United Nations envoy to the Middle East, Nikolay Mladenov, condemned the rocket fire and said that contacts were being held with the Egyptians in an effort to reach a truce.
"Today's firing of a rocket from Gaza towards Israel, which hit a house north of Tel Aviv and injured seven people, is absolutely unacceptable," he wrote on Twitter.
"(The) UN is working intensely with Egypt and all sides but situation remains VERY tense," he said.
#BREAKING: Today's firing of a rocket from #Gaza towards #Israel, which hit a house north of Tel Aviv and injured seven people, is absolutely unacceptable. This is an extremely serious incident! #UN is working intensely with #Egypt and all sides but situation remains VERY tense.— Nickolay E. MLADENOV (@nmladenov) March 25, 2019
Israel estimates that the rocket that struck the home on Moshav Mishmeret made a Hamas-made copy of an Iranian Fajr-5, tweaked to extend its range to the 120km it travelled from the southern Gaza Strip.
Sources in the Gaza Strip confirmed to Ynet that Hamas fired the rocket that hit the home, but said the terror group did not expect a massive response from Israel so close to the elections on April 9.
"The rocket was fired from an area between Khan Yunis and Rafah, which is under the full control of the Hamas military wing," the source said. "The objective was to put pressure on Israel while the Egyptians were in the area as part of negotiations (for long-term calm), based on the assessment … that Israel would refrain from a broad military response two weeks before the elections."
According to the Gaza sources, Hamas thought it would be able to deny a connection to the rocket fire or say – as it did 10 days ago - that it was down to a technical malfunction.
The group believed that the rocket fire would lead to a relatively limited Israeli response, but the Gaza sources said that Hamas misjudged the situation and Israel would react in harsh and uncontained manner.
Anticipating the Israeli response, Gaza's Hamas leaders apparently went underground Monday. Witnesses reported seeing Hamas evacuating its personnel from government premises.
Hamas also announced that its Gaza chief, Yahiya Sinwar, had cancelled a scheduled public speech. Israel also shut down its main crossings into Gaza and imposed restrictions on fishing off the Gazan coast.