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Hamas rejects Israeli army accusation over rocket attack near Tel Aviv

Gaza institutions shut down in fear of Israeli offensive as the military calls up thousands of reservists
An Israeli soldier stands atop a tank near the border with Gaza, in southern Israel (Reuters)

The Hamas movement on Monday rejected the Israeli army's accusation that it carried out a rocket strike from the Gaza Strip after a missile hit a town in central Israel, injuring seven people.

In Mishmeret, one house was completely destroyed and at least one other house and cars were left badly damaged.

The strike came minutes after the Israeli military activated air raid sirens in the area and said one rocket had been launched out of the Gaza Strip.

"No one from the resistance movements, including Hamas, has an interest in firing rockets from the Gaza Strip towards the enemy," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity, evoking the possibility that "bad weather" may have been to blame.

In at least one previous instance in which Hamas and other militant groups denied firing rockets at Israel, they evoked the possibility that a thunderstorm had triggered a rocket launch. It remained unclear if the official interviewed by AFP was alluding to a similar scenario.

The anonymous official added that the same message had been delivered to Egypt, which has acted as mediator between Israel and Hamas.

Israeli army spokesman Ronen Manelis said that two brigades were heading south towards the besieged Gaza Strip and that the army was calling up thousands of reserve soldiers, including reservists from the Israel air force, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported.

The Israeli military said that the rocket, which struck a home in the farming community of Mishmeret, which lies 20km northeast of Tel Aviv, was fired from a Hamas position in the area of Rafah in the southern Strip.

The hospital treating the wounded said seven Israelis were injured lightly by burns and shrapnel, including an infant, a three-year-old boy, a 12-year-old girl and a 60-year-old woman. 

Mishmeret

Six of them were members of the same family.

The early morning attack on Mishmeret came at a time of high tension ahead of the anniversary of Great March of Return protests in Gaza at the weekend, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington as he campaigns for a fifth term in a 9 April ballot.

Ziyad al-Nakhleh, the secretary general of Islamic Jihad, an armed group operating in the Strip, said: "We will respond harshly to any Israeli aggression against Gaza."

Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas, which governs the besieged coastal enclave, cancelled a planned public meeting scheduled for Monday afternoon, with Hamas officials citing "developments".

Netanyahu said he was cutting short his trip to the United States, where he was scheduled to speak at the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby conference, following the attack.

"In light of the security events I decided to cut short my visit to the US," Netanyahu said, calling the attack a heinous crime that would draw a strong Israeli response.

He said he would meet with President Donald Trump in the coming hours and then fly back immediately.

Netanyahu's chief rival in next month's election, centrist ex-general Benny Gantz, issued a statement following the attack accusing the premier of having "bankrupted national security".

Evacuating security stations

Meanwhile, the Israeli navy prevented Palestinian fishermen from sailing, and closed both Karm Abu Salem, a terminal used for trade, and Beit Hanoun that is used by officials to visit the Gaza Strip, and for humanitarian cases.

The Israeli army also declared several areas in southern Israel closed military zones.

Palestinian governmental buildings, schools, prisons, and police and security stations in Gaza were evacuated in anticipation of being targeted by Israeli warplanes in upcoming hours.

The headquarters of Al-Aqsa TV station also closed down out of fear that it too could be hit by air strikes.

During the Israeli offensive on Gaza in December 2008, Israeli war planes' first targets in were police stations.

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Mishmeret, is more than 80km from the Gaza Strip and rocket fire from the Palestinian enclave at this distance is rare.

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Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial capital, and outlying communities last came under such an attack during the 2014 war with Hamas.

Two rockets were launched towardsTel Aviv on 14 March but caused no casualties or damage, Israel said. 

Israel blamed the rocket launches on Hamas, though a Gaza security official who declined to be identified by name or nationality later said that the salvo, which missed any built-up areas, had also been set off by accident.

Israel maintains a crippling blockade of the Gaza Strip, which critics say amounts to collective punishment of the impoverished enclave's two million residents.

Egypt also upholds the siege, restricting movement in and out of Gaza on its border.