Following through on a warning that it would not negotiate under fire, Israel recalled its delegates to the Cairo talks and let loose retaliatory air strikes on Tuesday, after Gaza-launched rockets broke the ceasefire, almost eight hours ahead of the scheduled expiration at midnight.
Three rockets struck southern Israel, near the city of Be’er Sheva, the military said. Two other rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system over the southern town of Netivot.
Hamas denied responsibility for the initial attack on Be’er Sheva, which the military said caused no casualties or damage, but Israel holds Hamas responsible for any hostile acts emanating from the territory it controls.
It was the fourth ceasefire to fail over the past month. Efforts on the part of Egyptian mediators in Cairo to arrange a de facto ceasefire were to no avail.
“This rocket attack was a grave and direct violation of the ceasefire,” Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, said after Be’er Sheva was targeted. A military spokesman said, in response to the salvoes, “terror targets across the Gaza Strip” were attacked.
Later, shortly before 11 p.m., a rocket barrage was fired at Tel Aviv, where three loud explosions could be heard. At the same time, air raid sirens wailed throughout southern and central Israel, including the Ashdod and Ashkelon areas. One projectile landed near a shopping center in the Ashkelon Coast Regional Council. B’chasdei Shamayim, no injuries were reported, but a building was damaged.
Warning sirens were heard late Tuesday night in Yerushalayim and Beit Shemesh and, as the midnight deadline passed, again in Ashdod and Ashkelon.
Fragments of an exploded rocket or interceptor were found in southern Yerushalayim. No injuries were reported.
This time, Hamas claimed responsibility, saying that they had launched some 40 rockets , including M75 and Fajr 5 rockets. It also claimed it fired a J-80 rocket at the Ben Gurion Airport.
In compliance with a Home Front Command directive to all cities within 50 miles of Gaza, the municipalities of Rishon Letzion, Rehovot, Bat Yam and Ramat Gan opened public bomb shelters.
Witnesses told Reuters that Israeli aircraft carried out at least 25 strikes, and hospital officials reported that five Palestinians, two of them children, were wounded.
Netanyahu ordered the Israeli delegates home, reiterating that Israel will not negotiate under fire.
It was unclear, however, whether the collapse of the negotiations in Cairo was the result of the truce violation or a negotiating stalemate.
A senior Israeli minister said on Tuesday evening that there was a consensus in the Security Cabinet that a strong military response was called for. But he said the negotiations might not be over yet.
“Last night, there was a feeling the sides were close to (reaching) an agreement. Almost everything was done. And then Hamas decided to toughen its positions,” the minister said.
“We have to wait a few days and hear the updates from the returning delegation. We have to also wait and see if this is a last-minute power play in negotiations, or a real desire from Hamas to escalate. This is yet unclear, so waiting is critical at this moment.”
Although the IDF had responded forcefully by air to the rocket barrages, it appeared as of early Wednesday morning that no ground operations were immediately in the offing, and that Israel was moderating its retaliation at this point, in the hope that negotiations could yet be salvaged.
The head of the Hamas delegation to the talks, Izzat al-Rishq, was more pessimistic.
“There’s no use in extending the ceasefire,” he said, adding that the Palestinian delegation would leave Cairo on Wednesday morning.
Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri said that the organization, “is interested in reaching an agreement, but there’s no progress being made in peace talks and the Israeli attacks are meant to pressure the Palestinian envoy.”
Earlier, Palestinian sources claimed the crisis in talks was not a result of the rockets fired at Be’er Sheva. “The problem in the talks is fundamental,” the sources said, noting that “the talks have reached a dead end.”
Apparently, the talks have foundered on the Hamas demand for a Gaza seaport, and the Israeli insistence that a seaport would only be possible if coupled with the disarmament of the terrorist factions.
“The efforts at the moment are solely focused on saving the negotiations from collapsing. The odds of reaching an agreement soon on a permanent ceasefire are very slim,” sources said.
Another Israeli source, however, maintained that the talks did not collapse over disagreements, but rather “because they fired and blew up the talks.” Officials were quoted saying that the rockets came as a surprise. Although there were difficulties in Cairo, they had been anticipated, and the indirect talks, mediated by the Egyptians, were ongoing through the afternoon.
But the rockets fired at Be’er Sheva and Netivot set off the military and political response that Israel had said would follow such provocation.