Jihadists fire rockets at Israeli resort on Prisoners’ Day

An Israeli policeman inspects the site of a rocket explosion in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, on April 17, 2013.  By Noa Eliyahu (AFP)

An Israeli policeman inspects the site of a rocket explosion in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, on April 17, 2013. By Noa Eliyahu (AFP)

EILAT, Israel (AFP) – Jihadist militants on Wednesday fired two rockets from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula at the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat in an attack that deliberately coincided with Palestinian Prisoners’ Day.

It was the first rocket attack on the Red Sea resort in eight months, striking inside the city but causing no casualties, police said.

The army said the rockets were fired from Sinai, but there was no confirmation from Cairo, where a senior military official said troops were still investigating the incident.

The rockets slammed into the city just hours before Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza began gathering for a series of rallies in solidarity with the 4,713 prisoners held in Israeli jails.

In a statement posted online, a Gaza-based Salafi group called the Mujahedeen Shura Council claimed hitting Eilat with two Grad rockets as a “response to the continued suffering of the downtrodden prisoners in Israeli jails.”

The group, which has recently fired rockets from Gaza into Israel, said the attack was connected to the cancer-related death in custody of long-term inmate Maisara Abu Hamdiyeh, and to Israel’s fatal shooting “in cold blood” of two teenagers during a subsequent protest.

“We decided to direct an appropriate strike on the enemy in the language it knows well, and in a location it would not expect or be prepared for,” it said.

Israel had no immediate comment on the claim.

An Israeli defence official told AFP warnings of a possible rocket attack from Sinai had prompted the military to move a battery of its vaunted Iron Dome anti-missile system to the Eilat area earlier this month.

“There were warnings of possible firings, and they decided to shift the system to there,” he said.

An Israeli security source said the system “did not intercept the incoming rockets” on Wednesday for unspecified “operational reasons.”

As news of the attack emerged, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is in London for the funeral of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, had phone consultations with security officials on “how to react,” his office said.

Meanwhile, Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza Strip marked Prisoners’ Day with a series of low-key rallies taking on an unusually wet and chilly April morning, as inmates themselves staged a hunger strike.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, around 600 relatives of prisoners gathered for a sit-in in the rain at Arafat Square, while around 1,500 people turned out in the northern city of Nablus, AFP correspondents said.

A few hundred people rallied in the southern West Bank city of Hebron, with similar numbers joining a march through Gaza City that ended at the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross, correspondents said.

Some 3,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails refused breakfast as part of a one-day hunger strike to mark Prisoners’ Day, an Israeli prison official said.

According to the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, there are 4,713 Palestinians prisoners in Israel, of which 169 are in administrative detention where they can be held without charge for renewable periods of up to six months.

Of that number, 10 are women and 235 are aged 14-18, B’Teselm said.

Former US president Jimmy Carter called on Israel to respect international humanitarian law in its treatment of inmates.

“Practices such as transferring prisoners out of the occupied territory, extended solitary confinement, torture and ill-treatment, and the use of ‘administrative detention… should end,” a statement from the Atlanta-based Carter Center quoted him as saying.

Eilat, which lies on the northernmost point of the Gulf of Aqaba, has been hit by intermittent rocket fire from Sinai over the past few years.

So far, no one has been injured there but, in August 2010, a projectile hit the nearby Jordanian city of Aqaba, killing a taxi driver.

The last time Eilat was hit was in August, when another Salafist group called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis fired two Grad rockets at the city.

Since the ouster of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, Israel’s border with Sinai has seen multiple security incidents, with militants using the lawless peninsula to stage attacks on the Jewish state.

The most serious incident was in August 2011, when gunmen infiltrated southern Israel and staged a series of ambushes that killed eight Israelis.