Heavy rocket fire from the Gaza Strip struck southern Israel on Thursday, further heightening tension in the region and prompting retaliatory airstrikes.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued stern warnings to Palestinians about the consequences of the assault.
More than 40 rockets were fired at communities in southern Israel over the 24 hours that ended Thursday night, according to Israel’s army. Thirty-four landed in the town of Sderot, a frequent target, and other locations in the region bordering the Gaza Strip. Although several houses were damaged, no injuries or deaths were reported.
Four rockets fell short of their mark and landed in the Gaza Strip, Israeli authorities said, and two were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system.
After a heavy barrage Thursday evening, residents were instructed to stay within a 15-second running distance to shelter.
After a period of relative calm, rocket fire has increased in recent weeks as Israel has carried out a military campaign against Hamas in the West Bank. The army rounded up Hamas activists in the course of investigating the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers. Israel alleges that the crime was carried out by members of the Islamist militant group that rules the Gaza Strip.
“We are preparing for two possibilities in the south,” Netanyahu said Thursday evening at a Fourth of July reception with U.S. officials in Herzliya. “The first is that the firing at our communities will stop and then our operations will stop.... The second possibility is that the firing at our communities in the south will continue and then the reinforcement forces that are located in the field will act forcefully. The security of our citizens comes first.”
Briefing reporters earlier Thursday, Israeli military spokesman Peter Lerner said, "We are seeking de-escalation and return of stability ... but on the other hand must be prepared for actions that could develop if they do not de-escalate on their side."
Rocket fire has increased substantially in recent days, with about 15 to 20 fired a day.
Commenting on reports of troop movement in southern Israel and reinforced deployment, Lerner said some forces were moved "to serve defensive actions and forward preparation.”
"We have no interest in escalation; our interest is exactly the opposite," he said. Lerner confirmed a limited call-up of reserve officers, mostly at the headquarters level, not in the field. The army’s actions will correspond to those of Hamas, he said.
Israel’s operation to find the fugitive killers in the West Bank continued Thursday, with military Chief of Staff Benny Gantz ordering increasing security coordination with the Palestinian Authority and minimizing points of friction with civilians to prevent an escalation in the West Bank, Lerner said.
Jerusalem remained extremely tense Thursday after the killing a day earlier of Mohammed Abu Khdair, a Palestinian teenager from north Jerusalem. Unrest resumed in his neighborhood of Shuafat in the evening, as masked young men threw rocks and flares at police forces where riots raged the day before.
Police have not yet determined the identity or motive of his killers, but his family and many other Palestinians believe he was killed by Jews in revenge for the deaths of the three teens killed in the West Bank.
Results of an autopsy performed Thursday by Israeli and Palestinian doctors have not yet been made public. His funeral is scheduled for Friday, adding to concerns of possible violence after Friday prayers on the first Friday of Ramadan, often a tense time, particularly around Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
Police said they would restrict attendance at mosques on the Temple Mount to men older than 50, with no restrictions for women.
There have been signs of a backlash in Israel to right-wing rage against Palestinians and Arabs in the wake of the three teens' deaths.
Thousands attended a "demonstration of sanity" in Tel Aviv on Thursday. Another rally was called for Saturday in Haifa, where Jews and Arabs will urge “a stop to racism and escalation.”
Netanyahu condemned the killing of the Palestinian youth and urged both sides to act with restraint. “We don't know yet the motives or the identities of the perpetrators, but we will,” he said, vowing to bring to justice the “criminals responsible for this despicable crime, whoever they may be.”
“Murder, riots, incitement, vigilantism, they have no place in our democracy,” he said.