A general view shows a damaged house after it was hit by a rocket in the village of Mishmeret, north of Tel Aviv on March 25, 2019 Image Credit: AFP

Tel Aviv - A rocket from the Gaza Strip struck a house in central Israel before dawn, forcing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cut short a US trip where he had hoped to showcase his diplomatic stature ahead of April 9 elections.

The rocket destroyed the house but its residents escaped serious injury because an air raid warning siren gave them a brief window of time to flee. The biggest damage on the eve of elections may have been to Netanyahu’s domestic reputation as the guardian of Israel’s security, as it was the second attack on Israel’s heartland in less than two weeks.

Netanyahu, who had travelled to Washington for the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby, vowed a strong response.

“This was a criminal attack on the State of Israel, and we will respond forcefully,” the prime minister said in a video provided by his office. He’ll meet with President Donald Trump on Monday morning, but will leave the US without delivering a speech to Aipac in person.

Anticipating a strong Israeli response, Gaza’s Hamas leaders are taking precautions. Witnesses reported seeing Hamas evacuating its personnel from government premises. Hamas also announced that its Gaza chief, Yahya Sinwar, had cancelled a scheduled public speech.

The attack so close to the election put Netanyahu in a tight spot. Critics say he has squandered Israel’s deterrence by not launching a full-scale war on Gaza despite repeated rocket attacks. At the same time, his electoral prospects could be hurt if he orders a large-scale offensive that results in heavy Israeli casualties. Politicians including Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon say Israel should consider reviving its policy of assassinating top militant figures in Gaza.

“The time has come to change Israel’s strategy and extract a high price from Hamas, especially its military wing, even if it means an all-out conflict,” said Amos Yadlin, a former military intelligence chief and current executive director of the institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “But it doesn’t have to be tomorrow. Timing should be carefully planned, taking into consideration intelligence reports, operational factors, weather and even elections.

“What is important is to surprise Hamas and strike hard,” he said.

Jordan’s Al Hadath newspaper reported that Egypt, which often mediates between Israel and armed factions in Gaza, was trying to put a lid on the violence.

Submarine scandal

Adding to Netanyahu’s vulnerability is his recent re-entanglement in a naval acquisition bribery scandal. While the prime minister has not been a suspect in the case, which has ensnared some of his closest associates, prosecutors are weighing whether to reopen the case after learning Netanyahu held shares years ago in a company that supplied the Germany shipbuilder Thyssenkrup AG, media have reported.

Some polls have shown his Likud party slipping since these reports emerged, but his current coalition of right-wing and religious parties still would have an advantage over a center-left bloc led by former military chief Benny Gantz.

Netanyahu had hoped to use his US trip to burnish his credentials by highlighting his closeness with Trump. Trump has made support for Israel a linchpin of his foreign policy and has embraced Netanyahu, even as the Israeli leader faces corruption allegations in three separate cases unrelated to the submarines.

The Trump administration last year abandoned the Iran nuclear deal and moved its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, after 20 years of delayed US promises. Last week, Trump broke with decades of American policy by saying the US should recognise Israeli sovereignty over the strategic occupied Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria during the 1967 Middle East war.

At Aipac, Netanyahu could have expected a warm welcome from Jewish and evangelical Christian supporters, as well as high-powered backers in Congress. But that appearance was cancelled after he cut his trip short to deal with the rocket attack.

The rocket travelled nearly 100km from Hamas-run Gaza before hitting the house in the village of Mishmeret, some 30km northeast of Tel Aviv, according to Israel’s Haaretz newspaper. The military implied an Iron Dome missile defence system wasn’t deployed in the area.

None of the militant groups in Gaza claimed responsibility, but Israeli military spokeswoman Major Mika Lifshitz said Hamas manufactured and fired the rocket.

She said the military didn’t accept a reported Hamas explanation that the rocket went off accidentally because of stormy weather. That was the same excuse - widely ridiculed in Israel - given for March 14 attacks near Tel Aviv, which were the first in central Israel since the 2014 war with Gaza.

Israel closed its passenger and cargo crossings with the occupied territory after Monday’s attack.