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Israeli airstrikes targets Rafah area after mortars, shells fired across Gaza border

May 4, 2016 5:02 P.M. (Updated: May 6, 2016 10:59 A.M.)
A still shot taken from a video showing an Israeli airstrike near Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 4, 2016.
GAZA (Ma’an) -- Israeli forces launched several airstrikes in the southern Gaza Strip on Wednesday evening, hours after Palestinian and Israeli shelling across the border of the besieged enclave.

Witnesses told Ma’an that at least five airstrikes targeted an open area near the long-closed Rafah airport, causing material damage. No casualties were initially reported.

Hamas’ armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, issued a statement following the airstrikes, condemning the military incursion inside the Gaza Strip.

“The enemy should not invoke any reason whatsoever for its actions and leave the Gaza Strip immediately,” the statement read, adding that the airstrikes marked a breach of the ceasefire after the devastating Israeli offensive on the besieged Palestinian territory in 2014.

The Israeli army released a statement on Wednesday evening, stating that the airstrikes were in retaliation for five mortar rounds fired at Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip since Tuesday.

However, it did not indicate that the airstrikes were part of a broader escalation of violence in the Gaza Strip, quoting Israeli army spokesman Peter Lerner as saying: "Both Israeli and Palestinian civilians benefit from and deserve to live without the constant concern of escalation. We will work in order to maintain and restore the quiet that the people deserve."

The statement further added that the airstrikes were targeting “five Hamas terrorist infrastructure in the southern Gaza Strip,” without specifying the exact nature of the targets.

However, statements by Lerner on social media seemed to indicate that the airstrikes were supposedly targeting tunnels linking Gaza to Egypt.

"Our efforts to destroy the Hamas terror tunnel network, a grave violation of Israel's sovereignty, will not cease or be deterred," Lerner wrote on Twitter.

While the tunnels are used by the Hamas-led government in the Gaza Strip as a source of tax revenue and inflow of weapons, they also supply highly-demanded necessities for the 1.8 million residents of the besieged Palestinian territory, including food, medicine, as well as infrastructure materials like concrete and fuel.

Along with Israel, Egypt has been cracking down on Gaza tunnels in the past several years, especially since Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi became president in 2014.

Earlier during the day, Israeli tanks stationed along the Gaza border shelled two watchtowers reportedly used by the Hamas movement, eyewitnesses told Ma’an, after the Palestinian movement reportedly fired a mortar at Israeli troops.

Shells fell on the Shujayya neighborhood of Gaza City in the eastern Gaza Strip, destroying a watchtower reportedly used by Hamas’ military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

Following the shelling, Gaza’s Ministry of Education evacuated the nearby Subhi Abu Karsh and Beit Dajan schools.

Israeli artillery also shelled another watchtower early on Wednesday on a reported Hamas training site east of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, witnesses said.

An Israeli army spokesperson told Ma’an that mortar rounds landed near Israeli forces patrolling along the border-area fence near the southern Gaza Strip on Wednesday morning, without causing any injuries.

She added that Israeli forces then responded, aiming at the source of the mortar rounds.

The spokesperson said she was looking into reports of Israeli shelling in Shujayya.

Earlier on Wednesday, senior Hamas leader Musheer al-Masri told Ma’an that the Israeli attacks on Wednesday constituted a "dangerous development."

"The Israeli occupation should avoid testing the Palestinian resistance' tolerance," al-Masri said, adding that "the enemy should realize that the toll would be in proportion to the Israeli crimes."

Al-Masri did not publicly make a statement regarding the mortar rounds reportedly fired from the Gaza Strip.

Israel holds the Hamas movement responsible for all rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, although other Palestinian militant groups are active in the small Palestinian enclave.
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