Until the rocket attack, which began Friday afternoon, Israel has held fire, despite threats that it would not tolerate any Arab terrorism, in the face of terrorist sniper fire and occasional mortar attacks.
"The response needs to be crushing," Israel's Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz stated. However, Yuval Shteinitz (Likud), chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, criticized the government for not authorizing a stronger retaliation.
Police were on high alert throughout the country amid heightening fears of terrorist attacks. The IDF concentrated artillery and tank units in areas next to northern Gaza. The IDF clamped a total closure on Arab traffic out of Judea, Samaria and Gaza. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met at 8 p.m. with the security Cabinet in an emergency meeting.
Arab terrorists have shot at IDF positions almost daily recently, including sniper fire at an army checkpoint on Saturday. No one was injured.
Five Israelis, including Civil Guard volunteers, suffered shrapnel wounds, and six people were treated for shock in Saturday's attack, in which 21 rockets shook the Negev town of Sderot. One fell in a gymnasium in the town center and another struck a Jewish school, a house and factory. The other missiles landed in open fields in nearby kibbutzim. The victims were treated at the Barzalai Hospital in Ashkelon.
The Islamic Jihad terrorist organization said Friday afternoon it was behind the first barrage of 10 rockets, claiming the attack was in response to the deaths of three of its gang in the Tulkarm area. The terrorists, who were killed in a gunfight with IDF soldiers who had tried to arrest them, were involved in the 2002 Passover bombing of the Park Hotel in Netanya.
Hamas terrorists joined the offensive on Saturday and said they were responding to the deaths of 17 of its members in a Gaza City explosion Friday night. The IDF denied it attacked the terrorists and said they died during an accidental explosion at an armed Hamas parade.
Palestinian Authority (PA) chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) did not accuse Israel for the explosion and pleaded with terrorists to cease military-style parades. Hamas announced on Thursday that its terrorists would stop displaying weapons as of Sunday, but insisted they would not disarm.
Abbas also repeated a warning against Israel not to interfere with the PA legislative elections scheduled in January. "No one will tell us whom we can choose," he said Saturday. Sharon has warned that Israel will make it difficult for Arabs to reach polling stations if the Hamas terrorist organization runs a slate of candidates.