Gaza tense after Israel hits targets in the coastal territory

Israel has warned it will not sit back while Palestinian militants attack the south of the country from Gaza, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon declared Wednesday, hours after the military retaliated for rocket fire for the first time since an eight-day exchange of strikes in November.

Yaalon's remarks came as two rockets fired from the coastal territory exploded at an Israeli border town, according to police. Code Red alarm sirens wailed in Sderot at about 7:30 a.m. local time warning of incoming rockets and forcing the town residents who were on their way to work or school to take cover. No injuries were sustained in the attack.

Hours earlier, Israel struck targets in Gaza in response to Palestinian rocket attacks. It was the first time Israel retaliated for Gaza rocket fire since an informal cease-fire ended eight days of cross-border strikes between Israel and the Hamas-ruled territory in November. That round of fighting was triggered in part by almost daily Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks on southern Israel.

Palestinians in Gaza have fired several rockets since an informal cease-fire took hold after the fighting. Two rockets were fired during US President Barack Obama's visit to Israel two weeks ago.

The Israeli military says that, of the five rockets fired in the past day, three hit Israel while another two exploded prematurely inside Gaza. “We will not allow shooting of any sort (even sporadic) towards our citizens and our forces,” Yaalon said in a statement. He said he holds Hamas responsible for all rocket attacks from Gaza, which it has ruled since 2007.

Israel's chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, echoed his sentiments to Israel Radio. He said Israel “will not tolerate” returning to the days before the fighting in November where Palestinian rocket attacks were common. “Our goal is to keep southern Israel quiet,” he said.

During eight days of violence in November, the Israeli military said 1,500 rockets were fired at Israel, including the first from Gaza to strike the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas. The rocket attacks killed six Israelis and wounded dozens. Israeli airstrikes killed 169 Palestinians and caused considerable damage.

Defense Minister Yaalon said the policy of retaliating to fire applies to Syria as well. Sporadic mortar shells and machine gun fire have hit Israeli communities in the Golan Heights since Syria descended into civil war following its March 2011 uprising.

On Tuesday, the Israeli military said a mortar shell exploded on its side of the frontier in the Golan Heights. The military said its soldiers returned the fire and said it scored a direct hit. No other details were given.

“Israel has no intention of ignoring fire from Syria toward Israeli territory, incidental or not, and will respond with a firm hand,” Yaalon said. “As soon as we identify the source of the fire, we will take it down without hesitation, as we did last night and in previous cases. As far as we are concerned, the Syrian regime is to be held responsible for everything happening in its territory. Israel will not allow a situation in which firing spills over to Israeli territory without a response,” he said.

Israel has warily watched the fighting in Syria raging close to its frontier with the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau it captured from Syria in the 1967 war.

Syria's government meanwhile has over the years provided support and refuge for Israel's bitterest enemies, including Hezbollah.