Another round of escalation in the Gaza Strip, more intensive and severe than the previous ones

Rocket hit on a residential dwelling in Ashqelon (Palinfo Twitter account, May 5, 2019).

Rocket hit on a residential dwelling in Ashqelon (Palinfo Twitter account, May 5, 2019).

Rocket hit on a house in the community of Sha'ar HaNegev (Palinfo Twitter account, May 4, 2019).

Rocket hit on a house in the community of Sha'ar HaNegev (Palinfo Twitter account, May 4, 2019).

A kindergarten damaged by rocket shrapnel in the early morning of May 5, 2019 (Sderot municipality, May 5, 2019).

A kindergarten damaged by rocket shrapnel in the early morning of May 5, 2019 (Sderot municipality, May 5, 2019).

A rocket hit in a factory in Ashqelon (Palinfo Twitter account, May 5, 2019).

A rocket hit in a factory in Ashqelon (Palinfo Twitter account, May 5, 2019).

IDF attacks on terrorist targets in the central Gaza Strip (Palinfo Twitter account, May 4, 2019).

IDF attacks on terrorist targets in the central Gaza Strip (Palinfo Twitter account, May 4, 2019).

IDF attack on terrorist targets in the northern Gaza Strip (Palinfo Twitter account, May 4, 2019).

IDF attack on terrorist targets in the northern Gaza Strip (Palinfo Twitter account, May 4, 2019).

Overview

On May 4, 2019, another round of escalation from the Gaza Strip began, the eighth since the return marches began on March 30, 2018. It has not yet ended. It began when Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) snipers attacked IDF soldiers under the cover of the return march on May 3, 2019. The IDF responded by attacking two Hamas targets, killing two of its terrorist operatives. The following day a massive barrage of rocket and mortar fire began attacking the Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip, and it expanded to attack Israeli civilian targets at a range of more than 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Gaza Strip. The attack included the southern Israeli cities of Ashqelon, Ashdod, Qiryat Gat, Qiryat Malachi and Beersheba. As of noon, May 5, 2019, more than 500 rockets and mortar shells had been fired at Israel. On the morning of May 5, 2019, the IDF continued attacking terrorist targets in the Gaza Strip. At around noon, after a pause of about four hours, massive rocket and mortar fire from the Gaza Strip resumed. Three Israelis were killed and about 100 wounded (most of them not seriously). According to the Palestinian ministry of health, nine Palestinians were killed and about 80 wounded.

  • The round of escalation began while a delegation of senior Hamas figures (including Yahya al-Sinwar) and PIJ figures (headed by Ziyad al-Nakhalah) were in Egypt holding talks with senior Egyptian General Intelligence officials. So far Israel has rejected attempts to end the round of escalation. At the beginning of the weekly Cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “This morning, I instructed the IDF to continue massive attacks against terrorist elements in the Gaza Strip. I also ordered the reinforcement of the units around the Gaza Strip with armor, artillery and infantry” (website of the office of the Israeli prime minister, May 5, 2019).
  • The round of escalation began after a deliberately planned PIJ sniper attack. It was another act of provocation, following the rocket fire targeting Israel on April 28, 2019 (after a number of weeks during which the level of violence from the Gaza Strip had been relatively low). The IDF spokesman reported the fire had been directed by PIJ leader Ziyad al-Nakhalah in order to undermine efforts to sustain the lull. The PIJ provocations were accompanied by belligerent anti-Israel rhetoric. The PIJ is Iran’s preferred proxy and Ziyad al-Nakhalah is in close contact with Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Qods Force.[1] Thus it can be assumed that the PIJ’s provocations had Iranian fingerprints on them.
The most recent round of rocket and mortar fire

The most recent round of rocket and mortar fire
*The most recent round has not yet ended

The events on the ground
  • On May 3, 2019, under the cover of the weekly return march, PIJ snipers attacked IDF forces. The snipers situated themselves near return march demonstrators close to the border fence. The sniper fire wounded two IDF soldiers, one seriously and the other slightly. In response the IDF attacked two Hamas posts, one east of the al-Maghazi refugee camp (IDF spokesman’s Twitter account, May 3, 2019). The attack killed two terrorist operatives from Hamas military wing and critically wounded two others[2] (IDF spokesman, May 3, 2019). After the IDF attack, on the morning of May 4, 2019, a massive barrage of rocket and mortar fire began from the Gaza Strip. The IDF responded on the ground and from the air and sea, attacking terrorist targets in the Gaza Strip, most of them belonging to Hamas and the PIJ.

IDF evacuates wounded soldiers after they were attacked by PIJ sniper fire (QudsN Twitter account, May 3, 2019).
IDF evacuates wounded soldiers after they were attacked by PIJ sniper fire (QudsN Twitter account, May 3, 2019).

 Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades operative al-Bubli (palsawa, May 4, 2019).   Ground commander Abu Maluh.
Operatives from Hamas’ military-terrorist wing killed in IDF attacks. Right: Ground commander Abu Maluh. Left: Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades operative al-Bubli (palsawa, May 4, 2019).
Rocket fire
  • Since the morning of May 4, 2019, more than 500 rockets and mortar shells have been fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip (as of 15:00, May 5, 2019). About 70% of the rockets and mortar shells fell in open areas. The Iron Dome aerial defense system intercepted about 150 rockets (IDF spokesman, May 4, 2019). Most of the rockets had ranges of up to 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Gaza Strip . In addition to the Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip, rockets were fired at Ashqelon, Ofakim, Netivot, Ashdod, Qiryat Malachi, Qiryat Gat and Beersheba. Most of the rockets were fired by PIJ and Hamas operatives. The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) claimed responsibility for the rockets fired at Ashqelon (Dunia al-Watan, May 4, 2019). On the morning of May 5, 2019 rocket and mortar fire decreased, but around 12:00, after a paused of about four hours, the attacks resumed.
Rockets fired from the Gaza Strip at Israel (Palinfo Twitter account, May 4, 2019).     Rockets fired from the Gaza Strip at Israel (Palinfo Twitter account, May 4, 2019).
Rockets fired from the Gaza Strip at Israel (Palinfo Twitter account, May 4, 2019).
  • The following were the more prominent events in Israel (Israeli media, May 4 and 5, 2019):
    • More than 50 rockets were fired at Ashqelon. On the night of May 4, 2019, a 58 year-old father of four was killed when a rocket landed in his front yard and shrapnel hit him in the chest.
    • A rocket hit a house in Sderot. No casualties were reported. The house was damaged.
    • A house in Beersheba was damaged by shrapnel. No casualties were reported.
    • A house in a community in the western Negev was hit. The family was in the protected room and was not harmed. The house was extensively damaged.
    • A woman in Qiryat Gat was seriously wounded by shrapnel from a rocket. She had not managed to reach a safe location in time.
    • A house in Qiryat Gat was directly hit by a rocket. It pierced the roof but did not explode. No casualties were reported. The house was damaged. A mikveh[3] in Qiryat Gat was also hit. It was empty at the time.
    • During the night rocket exploded near a kindergarten in Sderot. Shrapnel damaged the building.
    • On May 5, 2019, with the resumption of the rocket fire, a rocket hit was identified in the yard of a house in the Ashqelon region. Another hit was identified near a kindergarten closed for the day and another near a high school.
    • A rocket hit a factory in Ashqelon. One man was killed and two were wounded, one fatally and the other critically.
    • A rocket that exploded in Ashqelon hit the oncology ward in the Barzilai Hospital.
    • A rocket hit a gas station in Beersheba. It also hit the railroad tracks, causing a temporary termination of railroad service between Beersheba and Qiryat Gat.
    • A Kornet anti-tank missile was fired at a civilian vehicle at the Erez Junction (near Sderot). The driver of the vehicle was killed.
Israelis killed and wounded
  • So far three people have been killed and about 100 wounded in the latest round of escalation (most of them slightly wounded or treated for shock). Extensive property damage was caused:
    • One man was killed in a direct rocket hit in Ashqelon and a woman was critically wounded in Qiryat Gat. On May 5, 2019 one man was killed and two were wounded. One was fatally wounded by shrapnel from a rocket that hit a factory to the south of Ashqelon (Red Magen David spokesman, May 5, 2019). A man was killed when an anti-tank missile hit his car near the Erez Junction near Sderot.
    • As of the morning of May 5, 2019, about 80 people were evacuated to the Barzilai Hospital in Ashqelon, most of them slightly wounded. Some of them were treated for shock (Barzilai Hospital spokesman’s unit, May 5, 2019). Six slightly wounded people were evacuated to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba (Soroka Hospital spokesman’s unit, May 5, 2019). Dozens of wounded were treated by local rescue forces without the for evacuation to hospitals. Some of the wounded were suffering from shock. Most of those who were wounded were not in protected locations at the time.
    • Extensive damage was done to houses in Qiryat Gat, Ashqelon, Sderot and a number of communities near the Gaza Strip.
  • Following the rocket fire and after an assessment of the situation, it was decided to close the schools and kindergartens within a range of 40 kilometers from the Gaza Strip border. The Ashqelon-Beersheba train line and the stops in Netivot, Sderot and Ofakim are currently not operative. On the afternoon of May 5, 2019, the road west of Sderot was closed.
Palestinians killed and wounded
  • On the afternoon of May 5, 2019, Dr. Ashraf al-Qidra, spokesman for the ministry of health in the Gaza Strip, reported that since the beginning of the escalation on May 4, 2019, nine Palestinians had been killed by IDF attacks in the Gaza Strip and about 80 had been wounded (Ashraf al-Qidra’s Facebook page, May 5, 2019).
  • Among those killed he included a pregnant woman and her infant daughter (3 people killed). However, the IDF spokesman reported they had been killed by a rocket that misfired in the eastern part of Gaza City (IDF spokesman, May 5, 2019). Several of the wounded had been injured in the same rocket misfiring. One of those killed was an operative in a network calling itself the Defenders of al-Aqsa, which is headed by senior Hamas figure Fathi Hamad, four were operatives in the PIJ’s military-terrorist wing, and one was an operative of unknown identity.
  • The ministry of the interior in the Gaza Strip said it was raising the level of alert for the security forces, the police and the welfare services in the Gaza Strip (Shehab Twitter account, May 4, 2019). The Palestinian ministry of education in the Gaza Strip closed the schools (Dunia al-Watan Twitter account, May 4, 2019). The universities in the Gaza Strip also announced they would close (Shehab Twitter account, May 4, 2019).
IDF response – interim overview

In response to the massive barrage of rocket and mortar fire, the IDF attacked many terrorist targets in the Gaza Strip from the air, the sea and with artillery fire. Since the events began on Friday, May 3, 2019, the IDF has attacked more than 240 terrorist targets, most of them belonging to Hamas and the PIJ.

  • Among the targets attacked were the following (IDF spokesman, May 5, 2019):
  • Rocket-launching squads.
  • Observation posts, military compounds, training camps and posts in the Gaza Strip. The targets included the PIJ’s operations room (located in a mosque in the Shati refugee camp) and a post of Hamas’ elite nukhba unit in Jabalia in the northern Gaza Strip.

IDF attack on terrorist targets in the northern Gaza Strip (Palinfo Twitter account, May 4, 2019).
IDF attack on terrorist targets in the northern Gaza Strip (Palinfo Twitter account, May 4, 2019).

  • A PIJ terrorist-offensive tunnel that penetrated into Israeli territory in the Rafah region in the southern Gaza Strip. The tunnel, dug to a depth of 20 meters (22 yards), passed under the border into Israeli territory and was meant to be used for carrying out terrorist attacks inside Israel. A number of shafts of terrorist-offensive tunnels were also attacked.
 Picture from a video documenting the destruction of a PIJ terrorist tunnel in the southern Gaza Strip (IDF spokesman's website, May 4, 2019).   One of the digging sites of a PIJ terrorist tunnel destroyed by the IDF. The removal of the rubble from digging the tunnel is visible, methodically camouflaged as a civilian activity (IDF spokesman's website, May 4, 2019).
Right: One of the digging sites of a PIJ terrorist tunnel destroyed by the IDF. The removal of the rubble from digging the tunnel is visible, methodically camouflaged as a civilian activity (IDF spokesman’s website, May 4, 2019). Left: Picture from a video documenting the destruction of a PIJ terrorist tunnel in the southern Gaza Strip (IDF spokesman’s website, May 4, 2019).
  • Terrorist infrastructure, including warehouses and workshops for manufacturing weapons; a PIJ workshop that made cement for the construction of tunnels; a weapons storehouse located in the house of an operative from Hamas’ aerial unit in Gaza City; a Hamas subterranean network for the manufacture of rockets in the Netzarim region (central Gaza Strip).
  • Houses of middle-level Hamas and PIJ ground commanders.
  • Naval vessels for operations, houses of operatives of Hamas naval force and a military structure inside the house of the operative in charge of Hamas’ naval commando in Khan Yunis.
  • Buildings in the Rimal neighborhood in Gaza City, including:
  • An eight-story building that housed, among other things, the offices of Hamas and the PIJ, and Hamas’ West Bank headquarters, responsible for directing terrorist activities in Judea and Samaria.
  • A six-story building used by the Hamas general security and military intelligence. It also housed al-Andalou News, a Turkish news agency.[4]
An attack on a building in Gaza City. which to the IDF spokesman housed Hamas' general security and military intelligence (QudsN Facebook page, May 5, 2019).     An attack on a building in Gaza City. which to the IDF spokesman housed Hamas' general security and military intelligence (QudsN Facebook page, May 5, 2019).
An attack on a building in Gaza City. which to the IDF spokesman housed Hamas’ general security and military intelligence (QudsN Facebook page, May 5, 2019).

The building used by Hamas for the offices of its general security and military intelligence, before the attack (IDF spokesman, May 4, 2019).
The building used by Hamas for the offices of its general security and military intelligence, before the attack (IDF spokesman, May 4, 2019).

  • A terrorist squad was attacked in Sajaiya in the northern Gaza Strip. On May 5, 2019, a PIJ terrorist squad was attacked in a weapons’ storehouse in the southern Gaza Strip.
The Israeli leadership instructed the IDF to intensify its attacks

So far, Israel has rejected the Egyptian attempts to broker a ceasefire. At the beginning of the weekly government meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had instructed the IDF to continue massive attacks against terrorist elements in the Gaza Strip and ordered the reinforcement of the units around the Gaza Strip with armor, artillery and infantry. He said, “Hamas bears the responsibility not only for its own attacks and actions but also for the actions of Islamic Jihad” (website of the prime minister’s office, May 5, 2019). The IDF spokesman reported on the reinforcements sent to the Gaza Strip, which included an additional armored brigade (IDF spokesman, May 5, 2019). During the afternoon, after the meeting the Cabinet instructed the IDF to increase its attacks on the Gaza Strip.

The role of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ)
  • The sniper attack that led to the escalation was a planned PIJ provocation. Before the most recent events the PIJ’s military-terrorist wing issued a video called “The Jerusalem Brigades – awaiting the order.” The voice of the organization’s leader warned Israel that the PIJ could cause suffering to all the Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip and that they would not agree to the equation, “calm in return for calm.” On May 2, 2019, PIJ leader Ziyad al-Nakhalah said in an interview that the “resistance” [i.e., the terrorist organizations] would respond with all its force to any attack.
  • At the funeral of one of the PIJ operatives killed during the return march, senior PIJ figure Ahmed al-Mudallal said the “resistance” would not allow Israel to continue its “crimes and aggression” against the Palestinian people without response. He said the “resistance” had weapons and capabilities it could use to surprise and cause pain to the enemy. He said the resistance was waging a long campaign against Israel, and it had to be waged smartly and with determination. He also said every round in the campaign was different in nature and circumstance from others (Paltoday, May 4, 2019).

Senior PIJ figure Ahmed al-Mudallal at the funeral of a PIJ terrorist operative, standing in front of a mourning sign of the PIJ's "intifada wings" committees (Facebook page of the PIJ's department of women's activities, May 4, 2019).
Senior PIJ figure Ahmed al-Mudallal at the funeral of a PIJ terrorist operative, standing in front of a mourning sign of the PIJ’s “intifada wings” committees (Facebook page of the PIJ’s department of women’s activities, May 4, 2019).

  • The leaders of Hamas and the PIJ are currently in Cairo for a round of talks with senior officials of Egyptian General Intelligence regarding a lull, and apparently directed the recent round of escalation from there. “Palestinian sources” reported that the commander of the PIJ’s military wing was asked by Egyptian General Intelligence to arrive in Egypt immediately to update them about the events in the Gaza Strip (al-Quds, May 4, 2019).
  • In any event, Hamas (which plays a major role in the escalation) and other terrorist organizations joined in the firing of rockets and mortar shells that began on May 4, 2019. The PIJ, as usual, concealed its role as the lead provocateur and represented itself as one of the organizations operating within the joint operations room, which issues claims of responsibility and updates information about extending the range of rocket and mortar fire.
Initial Palestinian reactions
  • At the height of the attack, PIJ spokesman Musab al-Brim threatened the “resistance” could respond with force. He said Israel would not succeed in hosting the “festival” [apparently meaning the Eurovision song contest] and that the settlers would all go to hell (Shehab, May 4, 2019). Hamas spokesman Abd al-Latif al-Qanua said the response of the “resistance” had made it clear to Israel that it was prepared and would not allow Israel to kill demonstrators at the return marches, and would not stand idle in the face of Israeli aggression. He said there was a united national position to respond with “armed resistance” and the understandings would not be able to stop a response to aggression (Shehab, May 4, 2019).
  • PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas condemned what he called “Israeli aggression” towards the Gaza Strip, and demanded international protection (Palestinian TV, May 4, 2019). The Palestinian government said the Israeli escalation was very serious and directed against the residents of the Gaza Strip in order to harm unarmed civilians. It called on the UN to intervene to stop Israel’s aggression against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip (Wafa, May 4, 2019).
  • Saeb Erekat, secretary of the PLO’s Executive Committee, condemned the “increase of Israeli aggression” against the Gaza Strip and said he held the Israeli government responsible for the escalation and harm to the Palestinians. He called on Egypt and the UN to monitor the efforts and contacts to stop the aggression, and called on the international community to intervene urgently to restrain Israel (Wafa, May 4, 2019).

Night march in the Gaza Strip to celebrate the launching of rockets at Israel (Shehab Facebook page, May 5, 2019).
Night march in the Gaza Strip to celebrate the launching of rockets at Israel (Shehab Facebook page, May 5, 2019).

[1] For further information, see the October 28, 2018, bulletin "Profile of Ziyad al-Nakhalah, the New Palestinian Islamic Jihad Leader."
[2] Two other Palestinians were wounded during the May 3, 2019 return march.

[3] A ritual immersion bath site.

[4] Turkish President Erdogan condemned the Israeli attack on the al-Andalou News offices in the Gaza Strip (Erdogan's Twitter account, May 4, 2019). The Turkish foreign minister said the Israeli attack damaging the news agency was "a crime against humanity" like the other attacks Israel carried out in the Gaza Strip (Reuters, May 4, 2019).