JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel will not sit back while Palestinian militants attack the south of the country from Gaza, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Wednesday, hours after the military retaliated for rocket fire for the first time since an eight-day exchange of strikes in November.
Yaalon's remarks came as two rockets fired from the coastal territory exploded at an Israeli border town, according to police. Code Red alarm sirens wailed in Sderot at about 7:30 a.m. local time warning of incoming rockets and forcing the town residents who were on their way to work or school to take cover. No injuries were sustained in the attack.
Hours earlier, Israel struck targets in Gaza in response to Palestinian rocket attacks. It was the first time Israel retaliated for Gaza rocket fire since an informal cease-fire ended eight days of cross-border strikes between Israel and the Hamas-ruled territory in November. That round of fighting was triggered in part by almost daily Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks on southern Israel.
Palestinians in Gaza have fired several rockets since an informal cease-fire took hold after the fighting. Two rockets were fired during President Barack Obama's visit to Israel two weeks ago.
The Israeli military says that, of the five rockets fired in the past day, three hit Israel while another two exploded prematurely inside Gaza. "We will not allow shooting of any sort (even sporadic) towards our citizens and our forces," Yaalon said in a statement. He said he holds the Islamic militant group Hamas responsible for all rocket attacks from Gaza, which it has ruled since 2007.
Israel's chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, echoed his sentiments to Israel Radio. He said Israel "will not tolerate" returning to the days before the fighting in November where Palestinian rocket attacks were common. "Our goal is to keep southern Israel quiet," he said.
During eight days of violence in November, the Israeli military said 1,500 rockets were fired at Israel, including the first from Gaza to strike the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas. The rocket attacks killed six Israelis and wounded dozens. Israeli airstrikes killed 169 Palestinians, many of them militants, and caused considerable damage.
Defense Minister Yaalon said the policy of retaliating to fire applies to Syria as well. Sporadic mortar shells and machine gun fire have hit Israeli communities in the Golan Heights since Syria descended into civil war following its March 2011 uprising.
On Tuesday, the Israeli military said a mortar shell exploded on its side of the frontier in the Golan Heights. The military said its soldiers returned the fire and said it scored a direct hit. No other details were given.
"Israel has no intention of ignoring fire from Syria toward Israeli territory, incidental or not, and will respond with a firm hand," Yaalon said. "As soon as we identify the source of the fire, we will take it down without hesitation, as we did last night and in previous cases. As far as we are concerned, the Syrian regime is to be held responsible for everything happening in its territory. Israel will not allow a situation in which firing spills over to Israeli territory without a response," he said.
Israel has warily watched the fighting in Syria raging close to its frontier with the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau it captured from Syria in the 1967 war. The Jewish state is concerned that some of the al-Qaida affiliated groups fighting alongside the rebels against the Syrian government forces could set their sights on Israel when the civil war ends.
Syria's government meanwhile has over the years provided support and refuge for Israel's bitterest enemies, including the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
The military spokesman meanwhile said the military is on alert for "riots" in Palestinian areas over an autopsy planned for later in the day for a Palestinian prisoner who died of cancer in an Israeli jail the day before.
Palestinian officials said Israel was responsible for the death of Maysara Abu Hamdiyeh, charging medical negligence. The 64-year-old was serving a life sentence for his role in a foiled attempt to bomb a busy cafe in Jerusalem in 2002.
Spokesman Mordechai however said the Palestinian Authority was exploiting his death to "resume popular protests."
Prisons Authority spokeswoman Sivan Weizman said Abu Hamdiyeh was treated well by Israeli specialists and died in a hospital in Beersheba. She said the prison service asked the parole board for the prisoner's early release after his cancer was diagnosed as terminal last week, but the appeal was still being processed at the time of his death.
Weizman said almost all of the 4,600 Palestinian prisoners detained by Israel refused their breakfasts Wednesday morning in a symbolic act of protest.
As news of Abu Hamdiyeh's death spread Tuesday, Palestinian prisoners in several jails began banging on their cell doors and hurling objects. Later, protests spread to Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank where protestors hurled fire bombs and rocks at soldiers.
Tensions are high in Israeli lockups, where thousands of Palestinian security prisoners are being held. Some have held hunger strikes and Palestinians have held large protests demanding their release.
After decades of conflict with Israel, the issue of prisoners is emotionally charged in Palestinian society. Inmates are widely esteemed by Palestinians regardless of the reasons for their incarceration, which range from mass murder to throwing rocks.