IDF sources said that IDF batteries fired 12 mortar shells this morning at two targets: One was a site from where Kassam rockets were fired at Ashkelon yesterday (Tuesday), and the other was where terrorists were preparing to launch additional Kassams. However, it is not clear whether one of the shells hit the residential building in which the civilians found their deaths.
It is IDF policy to inform residents well in advance of attacks on buildings used to store weapons and explosives.
As the investigation continues, the IDF well remembers the explosion in Lebanon this past summer in which Israel was accused of killing over 50 civilians. Later evidence showed that the actual amount of dead was about half that number, and that it was unlikely that an Israeli attack had actually caused the explosion.
Abu Mazen, head of the Palestinian Authority, said that Israel has "destroyed all chances of peace," while Hamas called off talks for a unity government with Fatah in the PA. The European Union announced, "Israel has the right to defend herself, but not at the expense of innocent people."
From Gaza, threats of terrorist retaliation and suicide attacks have been heard, and police have moved to the second-highest level of alert. "We urge our mujahedeen [fighters] everywhere to resume martyr operations [suicide attacks] in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Jaffa and everywhere else," Hamas Nizar Rayan of Fatah shouted into loudspeakers during protests in northern Gaza.
Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad said, "Israel should be wiped from the face of the Earth. It is a cancer that should be eradicated."
The IDF retaliation in Gaza followed a barrage of Kassam rockets which hit Ashkelon, Israel's 13th-largest city, yesterday, and barrages that have hit Sderot over the past several months. One of yesterday's rocket struck a school in Ashkelon, and two more slammed into the city's industrial zone. Two other rockets landed outside the city - one near Netiv HaAsarah, and the second in an open area.
Foreign Minister Tzippy Livny said, "Israel has no intention of hurting innocent civilians, but rather to protect its own citizens. Unfortunately, in war, sad incidents such as the one this morning sometimes occur. Israel faces an incessant barrage by terrorist organizations that fire Kassam rockets continuously at population centers in Israel."
MK Tzvi Hende (National Union) decried what he called the "hypocritical ethics of our enemies from within and without in condemning us when one of our shells misses, when the other side directs its missiles into our cities and only accidentally fails to murder anyone... I am convinced that our leadership is not totally insande, and that all the protestations and crying won't move anyone for more than an hour-or-two long show for the media - because the danger is very real."
MK Yuval Shteinitz (Likud), a former Chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said this morning, "With all the sorrow about the deaths of civilians, the responsibility for this tragedy lies squarely and fully on the shoulders of the terrorists, who use the citizens of Beit Hanoun as a human shield while they shoot at the city of Sderot."
"International law states clearly," Shteinitz added, "that the responsibility for harm to civilians is upon those who use them as human shields, and not upon those who fight [the terrorists]."
The IDF spokesman explained that this morning's artillery fire into Beit Hanoun was aimed at the launching grounds of the rockets, to prevent further fire on Israeli civilians. Close to 10 Kassam rockets have been fired at Sderot and other Israeli areas on nearly each day of the past two weeks.
Palestinian Authority sources were quick to call the incident a "massacre," and Hamas leader Abu Haniye called for three days of mourning.
Following the IDF artillery fire this morning, three more Kassam rockets were launched from southern Gaza, hitting a commercial center in Sderot. Six people were reported hurt and taken to Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon, and damage was caused.
The residents of Sderot have been suffering with daily "Red Dawn" warning alert alarms for months - alarms that are followed seconds later by a screeching whoosh and the seemingly-interminable wait to find out if one's house had been hit. Many families report significant psychological difficulties among their children, and some have been forced to move out of the area.
The IDF ended Operation Autumn Clouds yesterday. The week-long offensive in northern Gaza was aimed at reducing the number of Kassam attacks against southern Israeli communities.