By Lucia Suarez Sang
Published March 25, 2019
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short his trip to Washington, D.C., and was set to return to the Jewish state later Monday after a Gaza rocket attack struck a home in central Israel, wounding seven people.
Netanyahu, who was in the U.S. capital to meet President Trump and give a since-scuttled speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, called the Monday morning rocket launch in the agricultural community of Mishmeret a “criminal attack” and vowed to strike back hard.
In a brief address alongside Trump at the White House on Monday, the prime minister said “miraculously” no one was killed in the attack. He said the Jewish state’s military has started striking Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.
“Israel will not this. I will not tolerate this, and as we speak, Israel is responding forcefully to this wanted aggression to this wanton aggression,” Netanyahu said. “I have a simple message to Israel’s enemies: we will do whatever we must do to defend our people and defend our state.”
Trump offered his condolences to the people of Israel for the “horrific” Hamas attack.
“Our prayers are with our friends in Israel as they carry out an incredible way of life in the face of great terror,” he added. “The United States recognizes Israel’s absolute right to defend itself. The despicable attack this morning demonstrates the security challenges that Israel faces every single day.”
In addition to the canceled AIPAC address, Netanyahu also scrapped meetings with congressional leaders.
The early morning rocket, fired from the Gaza Strip, demolished a residential house, leaving it in ruins, with tiles, broken furniture and debris scattered about. A shattered baby's crib lay among the rubble and two family dogs died in the explosion.
"It's a miracle that nobody got killed," said Assi Dvilanski, a Magen David Adom paramedic who was one of the first responders at the scene.
The rescue service said it treated seven people overall, including two women who were moderately wounded. The others, including two children and an infant, had minor wounds.
The Israeli military said militants from Gaza's ruling Hamas movement fired the rocket from one of their launching pads in southern Gaza Strip, near Rafah.
Maj. Mika Lifshitz, a military spokeswoman, said it was a self-manufactured rocket with a range of 75 miles. She added two armor and infantry brigades were being mobilized to the Gaza front and a limited drafting of reserves was also taking place.
Anticipating a strong Israeli response, Gaza's Hamas leaders have apparently gone underground. Witnesses reported seeing Hamas evacuating its personnel from government premises. Hamas also announced its Gaza chief, Yehiya Sinwar, had canceled a scheduled public speech. Israel also shut down its main crossings into Gaza and imposed restrictions on fishing off the Gazan coast.
Monday's attack came 10 days after rockets were fired from Gaza toward Israel's densely populated commercial capital of Tel Aviv. The Israeli military at the time struck back and the sides appeared to be hurtling toward another confrontation. But Gaza's Hamas leaders said the rocket was fired accidentally and calm was quickly restored.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Monday's attack, but it would seem to be much harder to dismiss the latest incident as another misfire.
Gaza is controlled by Hamas, an Islamic militant Palestinian group that seeks Israel's destruction and possesses a large arsenal of rockets and missiles capable of striking deep inside Israel. The territory is home to other Palestinian militant groups, including Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-backed armed organization that also has a formidable rocket arsenal.
Israel and Hamas are bitter enemies and have fought three wars since the group seized power in the strip in 2007. Smaller flare-ups have occurred sporadically since Israel and Hamas fought their last war in 2014. Israel says it holds Hamas responsible for all fire coming out of the coastal territory.
An Israel-Egyptian blockade, combined with sanctions by the rival Palestinian Authority and mismanagement by the Hamas government have fueled an economic crisis. The territory's residents have little desire for another war with Israel.
Instead of a full-fledged conflict, Hamas has tried to end the blockade through a violent weekly protest movement along the Israel-Gaza border fence that it launched a year ago. It too has largely failed. About 190 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier have been killed during the weekly rallies.
Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations are trying to broker a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas but that effort has yet to bring about an agreement. At the same time, there has been an uptick in violence in the West Bank over the past week, with a stabbing and shooting attack that left two Israelis dead near a West Bank settlement and Israel's killing of two Palestinians it said attacked troops.
On Monday, after his meeting with Netanyahu, Trump signed a proclamation recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which reverses more than a half-century of U.S. policy. Israel captured the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war but its sovereignty over the territory is not recognized by the international community.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.