ASHKELON, Israel – The Israeli military, prepared for the recent outbreak of cross-border fighting with militant groups in Gaza, codenamed its operation just hours after the deadly violence began: Guardians of the Walls, a reference to the ancient city walls Old City of Jerusalem. The militant groups had their own code name for their campaign: the sword of Jerusalem.
By early Tuesday morning, barely 12 hours after Hamas, the Islamist militant group ruling the Gaza Strip, fired a surprise rocket volley in the direction of Jerusalem, Israel had carried out at least 130 retaliatory air strikes on the Palestinian coastal area, according to an Israeli military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus . Colonel Conricus said militant groups had fired at least 200 rockets at Israel.
23 Palestinians, including nine children, were killed and 107 others injured in the overnight air strikes, Gaza health officials said.
Colonel Conricus said Tuesday that 15 militants were killed in strikes by jets and unmanned drones.
He did not confirm or deny the reports of civilian deaths, adding, “We are doing everything we can to avoid collateral damage.”
Hamas said that some of its militants had been killed and that several others had been reported missing in an Israeli attack on a target, without providing further details.
Although the intensity of the fighting appeared to have eased slightly during the night, Colonel Conricus said the military’s aerial campaign was still in its “early stages”. Sporadic air strikes and missile locks continued early Tuesday. Journalists were unable to enter the coastal enclave Tuesday morning due to rocket fire near the Israel border crossing.
The Israeli military said in a statement that it was increasing its troops and “prepared for a variety of scenarios”.
The cross-border military conflict escalated rapidly on Monday evening after weeks of increasing tension and clashes between police and Palestinian protesters in and around the old center of Jerusalem, including the sacred Aqsa site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary . Hamas, posing as the Palestinian defender of the embattled city, had issued a series of threats and ultimatums.
The immediate trigger appears to have been a police raid on the mosque premises on Monday morning to disperse crowds and stone-throwing demonstrators with tear gas, tranquilizers and rubber-tipped bullets. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent, more than 330 Palestinians were injured, at least three seriously. At least 21 police officers were wounded.
But as the conflict expanded and the air strikes began, it quickly became fatal.
In Beit Hanoun in the north of the Gaza Strip, the Masri family mourned two boys who were killed on Monday evening. Ibrahim (11) and Marwan (7) were playing in front of their house when a rocket hit, according to their uncle Bashir al-Masri (25).
For Mr. Masri, the attack showed that Israel was not concerned about civil life.
“They target buildings with children, they target ambulances, they target schools,” he said over the phone. “And the whole world, starting with America, says that the people of Gaza are terrorists. But we are not terrorists. We just want to live in peace. “
He also called on Israel to end a blockade on Gaza, which has severely restricted goods and materials so that they are not used to make weapons. The blockade, combined with similar restrictions by Egypt, paralyzed the Gaza Strip’s economy and led to high unemployment.
“God knows how we live in Gaza – and the main reason is the Israeli siege,” said Masri, one of the 50 percent or so unemployed Gazans. “They want to kill us. But they can’t. “
About a dozen miles north, in the suburbs of Ashkelon, an Israeli coastal town off the coast of Gaza, residents were startled by a rocket attack on an apartment building just before 6 a.m. The missile crashed through the window of a third-floor apartment in Kohav HaTzafon, an area mainly populated by Russian immigrants, and smashed several others with its impact.
Six people wounded by the direct hit on the building, four of them from families, were taken to the Barzilai Medical Center, the main hospital in Ashkelon. The parents were in a moderate to severe condition and their two children, ages 6 and 12, as well as the other two, were slightly wounded, according to the hospital.
The family father, Edward Weinstock, said a few hours later from his hospital bed on the public radio that the missile had landed in his son’s bedroom and that the family had not had time to reach the safety of the stairwell. “Fortunately he wasn’t there,” he said of his son. “I was lying on the floor and didn’t understand what had happened.”
Maria Nagiv, 61, sat between the broken glass in her son’s apartment on the second floor and said she understood little about the events that led to the attack.
“What happened in Jerusalem?” she asked as shards crunched under her feet. “I haven’t followed anything about it.”
She added, “The whole world says the Jews cause trouble. But what did I do wrong? I haven’t done anything and they’re still sending us bombs. “
A few minutes later, the sirens sounded again, warning of another missile nearby.
According to military officials, the Iron Dome, an Israeli anti-missile defense system, successfully intercepts around 90 percent of missiles that are heading for populated areas. But the system went down in Ashkelon on Tuesday morning.
Most of the rockets fired from Gaza during this round of combat were short-range projectiles, aimed primarily at civilian communities within a few miles of the border. Israeli schools within 40 kilometers of Gaza were closed on Tuesday.
The Israeli military said its targets were the arms factories of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another militant group, as well as military facilities and two offensive tunnels. According to the military, a Hamas battalion commander who lived in an apartment building was also targeted.
Images from Gaza showed a corner apartment on the upper floor of a multi-story building that had been destroyed. Raed al-Dahshan, a civil defense spokesman in the Gaza Strip, said the bodies of three people had been removed from the ruins of the building. Health officials said they were civilians. Neither the location nor the condition of the person identified as the battalion commander was immediately clear.
Hamas’ military wing, known as the Qassam Brigades, issued a statement following the strike against the building warning Israel if it continued to hit civilian houses: “We will turn Ashkelon into hell.”
The rocket fire followed quickly.
Iyad Abuheweila reported from Gaza City and Myra Noveck from Jerusalem.