A Grad-type Katyusha rocket fired by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip struck close to an apartment building in a residential area of Ashkelon on Friday, while two mortar shells exploded in the western Negev just a few hours later.
The Katyusha rocket hit the populated neighborhood just after 8:30 A.M., causing some damage to the nearby building and to a number of parked cars. There were no casualties in the incident, but at least two people were treated for shock. Residents said that the Color Red rocket alert sounded prior to the explosion.
At around 12:30 P.M., two mortar shells hit the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council.
The attack on Ashkelon was one of the first to strike the southern city after months of quiet since Israel launched a three week military campaign in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in late 2008, called Operation Cast Lead in Israel.
“No doubt this is the most serious event that happened since Operation Cast Lead,” Ashkelon mayor Benny Vaknin told Israel Radio. The city is located about 12 km (7 miles) up the coast from the Gaza Strip and has some 125,000 residents.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement from his office: “Israel takes the firing on Ashkelon very seriously.”
While rocket fire has continued since the devastating war, much of it has targeted smaller towns closer to the border. Four Qassam rockets and two mortar shells were fired at Israel last weekend, none of them causing any casualties as they hit open areas of the western Negev.
Israel often carries out strikes against smuggling tunnels or outposts of the Islamist group Hamas after such attacks.
No group in Gaza claimed responsibility for the rocket fire. Hamas has said it is trying to stop militants from firing at Israel, but smaller groups have continued the attacks.
The explosion sounds which rocked Ashkelon on Friday morning took the southern city’s residents back to the days of fear. Nearly a year and a half after Operation Cast Lead, eight people suffered shock as a Grad rocket landed in a populated area in the city.
According to an initial military estimate, the Hamas movement was not responsible for the rocket, which was fired from an open area near the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun.
A second explosion was heard in the Eshkol Regional Council on Friday afternoon as two mortar shells landed in the area. There were no reports of injuries or damage.
Four Grad rockets have been fired from Gaza since the end of the Israeli operation in the Strip. Three of them exploded in Ashkelon and one in the local council of Gan Yavne.
Israel Defense Forces officials expressed their hope that Friday’s rocket was not an initial sign of escalation in the south, but stressed that terror organizations were in possession of rockets with longer ranges.
“The Grad exploded about 40 meters (131 feet) from a populated area, and the civilians’ behavior – which I hope will continue – has prevented and can prevent casualties in the future as well,” said Colonel Eitan Yitzhak, commander of the Home Front Command’s southern district.
“The rocket was fired to a relatively short range,” he told Ynet. “Before the first rockets reached Ashkelon, it was considered a relatively long range. Now the terror organizations have rockets which could reach more distant areas, proving that they have improved their abilities. Therefore, our systems are operating here regularly and we are attentive to the residents.”
The city’s residents reported that the explosion was heard a relatively long time after the Color Red alert system was activated. “I deliberated whether to get into the car and drive, but eventually decided to run into the building,” said Asher Turgeman, who lives next to the building hit by the rocket.
“I managed to get into the building, go upstairs – and only then I heard it fall. It was a long time compared to what we are used to,” he added.
Tzipi Sheetrit, who lives in the building hit by the rocket, said: “We were at home, me and the children. When we heard the siren we went into the fortified room. Almost two minutes passed before we heard the fall. It was a long time; we are not used to it.”
Shalom, who lives next to the building, said that “the warning was very long. It gave us time to go in and wait in the fortified room until we heard the explosion. It’s different from what we are used to, but it’s good. I think it helped those who were still outside the building get into a fortified area.”
Colonel Eitan says there was no change in the warning time compared to previous incident. “According to our initial estimate, the rocket landed 20 second after the siren was sounded. It was a 122 mm Grad rocket, which caused relatively limited damage.
“I would like to take this opportunity to remind the residents that they must go into a fortified room after hearing the siren and stay inside for five to 10 minutes. I am under the impression that that’s what they did, although such an incident has not taken place for quite a long time. The systems in Ashkelon and its vicinity are constantly connected in order to warn the residents in time, even at times of relative calm in the Strip,” he said.
And what about the Iron Dome missile shield, which recently completed a final successful test and is scheduled to become operational soon?
“I say to Ashkelon’s citizens, as well as to the citizens of Beersheba and Tel Aviv, that the matter is being discussed by the army’s highest ranks,” Eitan added. “Once the system becomes operational, we will know how to use it and provide the best defense in any place needed.
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