(Fallen mortar outside Israeli preschool. Photo: IDF.)

Dozens of rockets and shells were fired into Israel by terrorists in Gaza overnight, sparking repeated rocket alert sirens across Israel’s southern region and sending tens of thousands of Israeli scrambling for bomb shelters in the middle of the night.

The dramatic escalation occurred after Israel reacted to a Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) infiltration attempt into Israel by attacking PIJ infrastructure and killing three fighters. PIJ vowed to respond, and hours later Israelis found themselves on the receiving end of an aerial bombardment.

Thanks to the ingenuity of Israel’s Iron Dome high-tech rocket interception system, no Israeli lives were lost in the potentially lethal attack.

The attacks followed an earlier, smaller barrage on Tuesday morning, after terrorists in Gaza fired 28 mortar shells at southern Israel.

Residents in a number of communities adjacent to Gaza woke up to sirens at around 7am. They reported hearing explosions and were asked to remain in protected spaces.

In one of those attacks, a mortar landed in yard outside a preschool, around an hour before children would have arrived for the day. Images of the mortar tail drew outrage in Israel and led to strong responses from the international community, reaffirming Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself from terrorist aggression.

After the attack last night, the IDF reported rockets and shells being fired at Israeli territory, adding that Iron Dome intercepted some of those which were likely to land on Israeli population centers. The others mostly fell in open areas. In at least one instance, a house took a direct hit, but was empty at the time.

Earlier in the evening, fragments from an intercepted rocket fell in a sports arena in the Israeli city of Netivot. The falling shrapnel caused damage and left a plume of smoke in the sky, but nobody was physically harmed. A woman passing by suffered a panic attack and was taken to hospital.

In response, Israel struck at 25 Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza, including a rocket manufacturing facility, weapons depots, a drone lab, training camps and other military assets.

Earlier on, Islamic-Jihad and Hamas issued a joint statement taking responsibility for the attacks on Israel.

“Hamas chooses to act against the interests of the residents of the Strip and, after it failed with its violent riots along the security fence, has decided to launch and to allow the launch of numerous projectiles at Israeli citizens,” an army statement read.