More than 50 mortar shells were fired at the western Negev from the Gaza Strip in several barrages Saturday morning. The mortars exploded in open areas within the Sdot Negev and Eshkol regional council.
Two people were lightly injured by shrapnel in one of the kibbutzim and were evacuated to the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba. A building sustained heavy damage.
Eshkol officials said dozens of mortar shells exploded within the regional councils. Local residents were ordered to enter shelters. Loud blasts were reported in the area.
The Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades claimed responsibility for the mortar fire, saying it acted in response to IDF strikes in the past week. The group issued a statement saying that the mortars were directed at Israeli military targets.
The Israel Defense Forces responded to the attack by firing artillery at suspicious targets in the southern Gaza Strip. Israel Air Force helicopters bombed targets in Dir al-Balah and Khan Younis.
Palestinian sources said two people were lightly injured in an airstrike on a Hamas base in southern Gaza. The Sajaiyeh neighborhood in central Gaza was reportedly attacked as well.
The IDF Spokesperson's Office said in a statement, "The IDF will not tolerate the Gaza vicinity communities being under fire. The IDF will continue to use force against any attempt to hurt Israel's citizens. The Hamas terror organization is responsible."
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman instructed the Israeli delegation at the United Nations to file a complaint with the Security Council.
"The missile attack, while Hamas is talking about unity, shows that the international support sought by the Palestinians to establish a state will mean support for a terror state. Their first and main goal is to destroy Israel," Lieberman said.
Ariel, a resident of one of the kibbutzim in the Eshkol Regional Council, told Ynet: "We began hearing explosions at around 8:45 am. My daughter, who lives in a nearby community, called me crying and said she had heard strong blasts approaching her. We received text messages from the council to remain in a fortified area.
"After the series of explosions I didn't hear any additional barrages. These explosions are not normal. There has been a relative calm for quite a while now. We haven't experienced such a thing in these hours, on Saturday morning, for a long time."
'We can't rely on miracles'
Eshkol Regional Council head Haim Yalin said the protected spaces proved themselves. "They really save lives. What happened here this morning is something which we unfortunately call an emergency routine. These are not Purim detonators, but mortar shells.
"So we've managed to seize a ship, but who knows how much they have already smuggled into the Strip. The communities' emergency squads did their job and the residents remained in protected spaces."
Drorit, whose home was hit in the attack, told Ynet she was playing a computer game when the first mortar shell landed near her house. "I immediately ran to my elderly neighbor. We were running into the sheltered space when the second mortar landed. It hit the fortified room."
She said she was not afraid. "We are used to such incidents. It's become a routine."
Dafna, who lives in the community hit by most of the mortars, recounted the attack: "We were having breakfast and heard explosions, one after the other. I ran into the sheltered room with my six-year-old son. I waited to be able to come out and then checked the damage.
"My eldest son's house was hit, but luckily he left the kibbutz. This isn't a new situation, but we got a serious reminder today. We leave in fear and try to cope."
Shlomo, who also lives in the western Negev, said Saturday's incident brought back memories from Operation Cast Lead. "We can't rely on miracles. The State must intervene and solve this problem. The residents are living between wars and we will likely pay the price."
Almost one-quarter of all mortar shells fired from Gaza last year hit the western Negev on Saturday morning. According to the Shin Bet, 215 mortars were fired from the Strip in 2010, in addition to 150 Qassam rockets. In 2009, southern Israel was hit by 289 mortar shells (215 of them during Operation Cast Lead) and 569 rockets (407 during the Gaza war).
On Friday, Palestinian terrorists in north Gaza fired 10 mortars towards Israel's western Negev region. Four of the shells were fired before noon. Some of them landed in Palestinian territory.
At around 4 pm six additional mortars launched from the Hamas -ruled territory landed in an open area within the limits of the Eshkol Regional Council, near the security fence separating Israel and Gaza. There were no reports of injury or damage in either attack.
On Wednesday two gunmen belonging to Hamas' armed wing - the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades - were killed during an Israeli aerial strike in Gaza. The attack was launched in response to rocket fire from Gaza on Israeli territory earlier in the day.
Elior Levy and Ronen Medzini contributed to this report