Israel hits targets across Gaza in retaliation for rocket attack

Israeli forces strike targets across the Gaza Strip, including the offices of Hamas' supreme leader, in response to a surprise rocket attack.

7 Israelis wounded after rocket destroys home in Mishmeret, north of Tel Aviv

Flames and smoke caused by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City. The Israeli military said it demolished a key Hamas building in its response to a rocket attack north of Tel Aviv. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

Israeli forces on Monday struck targets across the Gaza Strip, including the offices of Hamas' supreme leader, in response to a surprise rocket attack from the Palestinian territory, as the military bolstered its troops and rocket-defence systems in anticipation of a new round of heavy fighting with the Islamic militant group.

Israel opened public bomb shelters in most major cities and civil defence authorities canceled sports events and public transportation in southern Israel. The Israeli army said air raid sirens wailed across southern Israel late Monday night, and Israeli media reported at least 10 rockets fired into the country, but it provided no further details.

The barrage began as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House.

"Israel is responding forcefully to this wanton aggression," said Netanyahu, calling it miraculous that no one was killed in the rocket attack. "We will do whatever we must do, to defend our people and to defend our state."

Late Monday, Hamas announced that a ceasefire had been brokered by Egyptian mediators. But shortly after, renewed rocket fire could be heard in Gaza, setting off air-raid sirens in southern Israel.

A house lies in ruins after being hit by a rocket in Mishmeret, central Israel, on Monday, in an eruption of violence that could set off another round of violence shortly before the Israeli election. (Ariel Schalit/Associated Press)

Ahead of the Israeli airstrikes, Hamas's leadership went into hiding.

Several airstrikes rocked Gaza, including an explosion that destroyed the office of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. The Israeli military issued a statement confirming it bombed the building, which had "served as an office for many military meetings." An earlier blast destroyed a multistory building in Gaza City that Israel said had served as a Hamas military intelligence headquarters.

There were no immediate reports of casualties. In both blasts, Israel fired warning shots to evacuate the buildings. But the airstrike on the multistorey building was so powerful it sent debris flying onto the roof of The Associated Press bureau, located on the 11th floor of a nearby highrise.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Monday's rocket fire, but 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.

Election ahead

The sudden conflagration came at a time when both Netanyahu and his Hamas foes are in desperate situations.

Netanyahu is in a tight race for re-election, and just two weeks before the April 9 vote, faces tough criticism from challengers who accuse him of being too soft on Hamas.

In Washington to celebrate the U.S. recognition of Israel's control of the Golan Heights, Netanyahu instead was forced to cut short his trip under heavy pressure to strike back at Hamas.

Flame and smoke are seen during an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City Monday. (Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

Earlier, Haniyeh issued a statement warning Israel against heavy retaliation. He said the Palestinian people "will not surrender" and its militant factions "will deter the enemy if it exceeds the red lines."

In Beirut, the powerful Lebanese militant group Hezbollah said its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, met Monday with a Hamas delegation led by top official Saleh Arouri. Hezbollah said they discussed the Gaza situation and "Israeli aggression."

Hamas is facing perhaps its toughest domestic test since seizing control of Gaza from the rival Palestinian Authority 12 years ago.

An Israeli-Egyptian blockade, combined with sanctions by the rival Palestinian Authority and mismanagement by the Hamas government have fuelled an economic crisis that has left Gaza with an unemployment rate above 50 per cent. Political analysts say 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. At least 190 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier have been killed during the weekly rallies.

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.

Last week, hundreds of Gazans protested the dire conditions, a rare expression of public discontent against the authoritarian government. Hamas responded with a violent crackdown, beating and arresting dozens of demonstrators and drawing rare public criticism.

Air raid sirens

The rocket attack destroyed a residential home in the community of Mishmeret, north of the city of Kfar Saba, wounding six members of the family. The Magen David Adom 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 sounds of air raid sirens jolted residents of the Sharon area, northeast of Tel Aviv, from their sleep shortly after 5 a.m. local time, sending them scurrying to bomb shelters. A strong sound of an explosion followed.

An Israeli rescue service said seven people were wounded after an early morning rocket from the Gaza Strip struck a house in central Israel. (Ariel Schalit/Associated Press)

The family home in Mishmeret was left 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.

"I nearly lost my family," said Robert Wolf, grandfather of the injured residents. "If we hadn't gotten to the bomb shelter in time, I would now be burying all my family."

The Israeli military said Hamas militants fired the rocket from southern Gaza. It said its Iron Dome rocket-defence system was not activated because the attack in central Israel had not been anticipated. The army added it was reinforcing its missile defence batteries in preparation for an escalation. 

Maj. Mika Lifshitz, a military spokesperson, said it was a self-manufactured rocket with a range of 120 kilometres, making it one of the deepest rocket strikes ever carried out by Hamas.

Lifshitz added that two armour and infantry brigades were being mobilized to the Gaza front and that a limited drafting of reserves was also taking place.

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.

Streaks of light are seen as rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip toward Israel, as seen from the Israeli side of the border on Monday. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

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.

UN condemns rocket attack

Trump stressed Israel's right to "defend itself" as he made a dramatic shift from decades of U.S. policy and recognized, in an official proclamation, Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights. 

Israel captured that region in the 1967 war and annexed it in 1981 in a move not recognized internationally.

Syria, which once held the strategic land, called the move a "blatant attack" on its sovereignty and territorial integrity and saying it had a right to reclaim the Golan.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas expressed his "absolute rejection" of the move, and Turkey said it would take action, including at the UN, where in 1981 the Security Council passed a resolution declaring Israel's annexation "null and void." UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the status of Golan "has not changed."

Earlier in the day he condemned the Gaza rocket attack, his spokesperson Stephane Dujarric calling it "a serious and unacceptable violation."

In Canada, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer condemned the attack on the residential area, with Scheer characterizing it as a "completely unacceptable act of terror against innocent civilians.' 

Freeland also said Canada "does not recognize permanent Israeli control over the Golan Heights."

With files from Reuters