Air raid sirens have been blaring across central Israel after the Al Qassam Brigades, the militant wing of the Palestinian group Hamas, announced that they had fired approximately 130 rockets toward Tel Aviv and other population centers to the north of the Gaza Strip. This was in direct response to a series of Israeli airstrikes on targets in Gaza, most notably one that destroyed the Hanadi Tower, a combined office and apartment building owned by Hamas. This also appears to be the largest rocket attack from Gaza aimed at central Israel ever and is the latest in a series of escalating tit-for-tat actions between Israel and Palestinian militants in recent days.
The fighting has already led to the deaths of at least 28 Palestinians, including 10 children, and two Israelis, and has left many more on both sides wounded. This is some of the worst fighting between Israel and Palestinian militant groups in years and follows a spike in tension in recent weeks. The immediate inciting incidents are a combination of a controversial court case playing out in Israel, which could see Palestinians evicted from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, and issues over access to the Al Aqsa Mosque in that same city during the current holy month of Ramadan.
The Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, sits on top of the Temple Mount, which is the location of the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, and the entire complex has been a flashpoint for tensions between the two communities for decades. The current situation has already prompted violent clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police. Video footage has shown riot police launching stun grenades into the mosque itself.
Ahead of the airstrike today that leveled the Hanadi Tower, the Al Qassam Brigades had publicly threatened a new wave of rocket attacks against Tel Aviv that would be greater than those the group had previously carried out the day before against the Israeli city of Ashkelon. Israel ignored that threat, conducting a so-called "roof knock" strike on the Hanadi Tower, causing only superficial damage initially, but announcing the Israel Defense Forces' intention to flatten it. The IDF had also otherwise issued calls for civilians to evacuate the area ahead of a major strike.
Earlier today, the IDF said that a total of 480 rockets had been fired toward Israel from Gaza in the fighting up to that point, a rate of one rocket every three minutes for a time. The IDF added that Iron Dome systems had been able to intercept approximately 200 of them. There have been reports that the sheer volume of rockets had, at least for a time, overwhelmed Iron Dome batteries in southern Israel, leading to rockets hitting urban areas in Israel. Iron Dome and its Tamir interceptors, which you can read more about here, are specifically designed to counter artillery rockets, as well as artillery shells and mortar rounds, a mission set commonly referred to as C-RAM.
There are reports now that Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), another Palestinian militant group in Gaza, has threatened more strikes on Tel Aviv if Israel retaliates for the latest rocket barrage, something that seems likely to happen regardless. Israel launched a named operation, dubbed Guardian of the Walls, in response to the rocket attacks on Monday. So far, it has primarily involved a campaign of airstrikes, including on rocket launch sites in Gaza, as well as targeted killings against higher-level militants. The head of the PIJ's special rocket unit was among those killed in the Israeli strikes.
However, unspecified ground and naval forces are also reportedly involved and there are concerns that the IDF may be close to launching a full-scale ground intervention into Gaza. The last time this occurred was in 2014 when Israel carried out Operation Protective Edge, which led to the deaths of more than 2,000 Palestinians, more than half of which were civilians, as well as dozens of Israeli troops and a small number of civilians inside Israel.
"The purpose of the operation is to strike Hamas hard, to weaken it and to make it regret its decision [to launch rocket strikes on Israel]," Benny Gantz, Israel's Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister, said earlier today regarding Operation Guardian of the Walls. "Every bomb has an address. We will continue this in both the coming hours and the coming days. It’s hard to estimate how long it will take."
"After assessing the situation, we made decisions," Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the latest round of rocket attacks. "Hamas and [Palestinian] Islamic Jihad will pay a very heavy price for their aggression tonight — their blood is on their heads."
The exact extent of the damage from the latest barrage of rockets, and how many Israeli casualties there might be, is unclear. The IDF is already carrying out retaliatory airstrikes.
By every indication, the situation looks set to continue escalating, at least in the near future. The United States, which does not presently have an ambassador to Israel, as well as various Arab countries in the region, have been attempting to find a way to deescalate things, so far without success.
The entire situation is made more complex by a separate political crisis in Israel, where the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also on trial over charges of corruption, has now failed to form a government following parliamentary elections earlier this year. The fighting in and around Gaza has impacted attempts by his political opponents to form a new coalition.
Eid al-Fitr, the Islamic religious holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, which begins tomorrow, could provide one opening to scale back the violence. Ceasefires around Eid in the midst of conflicts are not uncommon. For example, the Taliban in Afghanistan announced a three-day pause in fighting in that country yesterday to mark the occasion.
How far the violence will continue to escalate before the parties find an off-ramp to this current conflict remains to be seen.
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