A rocket fired from Gaza has hit a home in central Israel injuring seven people, in a serious escalation of violence that prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cut short a trip to Washington and return home.
Air raid sirens wailed in the Sharon area, northeast of Tel Aviv shortly after 5am, sending residents running for their bomb shelters. The attack that followed destroyed a residential home in the agricultural town of Mishmeret, over 80km north of Gaza, injuring seven people, including a six-month-old baby, children aged two and three, and a 12-year-old girl. Army reservists have now been called up.
Footage of the scene showed rescue workers picking their way through the gutted remains of the destroyed building. The blast had also partially damaged a nearby house and several cars.
Paramedics team Magen David Adom were at the scene.
Assi Dvilanski, a member of the crew, told The Independent: "Looking at the scene – it was a huge blast – it could have ended very very badly, it is a miracle no one was killed."
"When we arrived we started to see people coming out from the debris, the damage was severe. At the end we treated seven injured, with body injuries including blast wounds, burns, scratches and shrapnel injuries," he added.
"The youngest was six months old, both parents and grandparents were also injured. They were asleep. They didn’t manage to close the blast door of their shelter, which is why they were injured."
The grandmother remains in hospital with shrapnel injuries, according to her husband. The couple are dual British-Israeli citizens.
The Israeli foreign ministry said the projectile was fired from Gaza, which is controlled by militant group Hamas. The use of a long-range weapon by militants is a serious escalation and has sparked fears of another war just two weeks before an Israeli general election.
Mr Netanyahu said that Israel would respond “with force".
"There has been a criminal attack on the State of Israel and we will respond forcefully," he said in a video message. "In a few hours I will meet with President Trump. I will return to Israel immediately afterward."
Maj. Mika Lifshitz, head of the Israeli army’s International Press Desk, said a long-range rocket fired by Hamas in Gaza hit an Israeli civilian home at 5.45am. The army has deployed additional brigades in the south and called up reserve soldiers.
“The rocket has a range of above 120km, it is a Hamas rocket self manufactured. Hamas fired this rocket,” she told reporters.
“We have deployed two additional brigades Infantry and armoured on the southern command and limited draft of the service,” she added.
She declined to comment about whether Israel’s powerful missile defence system Iron Dome had been deployed.
Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, an army spokesman, had earlier told Israeli media the army is calling up thousands of reserve soldiers, including reservists from the Israel Air Force.
There was no immediate claim from Gaza.
Yahya Sinwar, the head of the Islamist militant group Hamas in the coastal enclave, cancelled a planned public meeting scheduled for Monday afternoon with Hamas officials, citing "developments."
However, it was the second long range rocket attack over the Tel Aviv area in two weeks.
On 14 March rockets landed just south of Tel Aviv, the first time since 2014 that Israel’s commercial and cultural capital has been under fire.
Tensions are high, ahead of the general election which is due to take place on 9 April but also as Gaza nears the first anniversary of the start of the Great March of Return protests.
Since 30 March 2018, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have rallied at the border fence between Gaza and Israel, demanding the right to return to their ancestral lands they fled or were forced from during the 1948 conflict which surrounded the creation of Israel.
Over 180 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, according to the United Nations, which has accused the Israeli army of committing possible war crimes.
Israel has defended its actions, saying Palestinians have attacked the border, fired balloons tied with explosives and incendiary kites at Israel threatening Israeli lives.
The violence at the border has sparked multiple bouts of cross-border fire between both sides, which on several occasions have nearly tipped into war.
Mr Netanyahu, who is both prime minister and defence minister, is facing mounting pressure from across the political divide to launch a full-scale military operation in Gaza.
The New Right, led by Naftali Bennett, his education minister and key coalition partner, said shortly after the attack that Mr Netanyahu should relinquish his position as defence minister and appoint Mr Bennett in his place.
"Israel's deterrence has collapsed, and it has to be said in all honesty, Netanyahu has failed against Hamas,” the party said in a statement.
“Netanyahu is a good prime minister but a failed defense minister ... The time has come to appoint Bennett as defense minister in order to defeat Hamas,” the statement added.
Mr Netanyahu’s chief rival in next month's election, centrist ex-army chief Benny Gantz, issued a statement accusing the rightist premier of having "bankrupted national security" by permitting such attacks. Gantz, who is also in Washington to address AIPAC, had urged Mr Netanyahu to return home.