Hamas terrorists launched three powerful rockets at an Israeli nuclear-power plant on Wednesday — a terrifying escalation of hostilities in the increasingly violent conflict.
But a nuclear disaster was averted when Israel’s vaunted Iron Dome defense system shot one of the rockets out of the sky and the other two missed their targets and detonated on the ground without causing any injuries.
Extremists from Hamas’s fanatical Qassam Brigades boasted that they had launched the long-range, M-75 rockets from the Gaza Strip to the Israeli city of Dimona hoping to damage or destroy the reactor, about 47 miles away.
But the Iron Dome — which has had a remarkable success rate of about 90 percent during the recent conflict — and the terrorists’ poor targeting prevented the reactor from being damaged.
The 333-millimeter M-75 rockets have a range of about 50 miles and can reach most of central Israel.
It was the first time that rockets have hit Dimona, one of Israel’s most sensitive areas because of the reactor’s location.
The rockets fired at the nuke plant were among 74 that rained down on cities across the country Wednesday, the Israeli military said.
Crying “God is great,” Palestinians in Gaza cheered as the rockets streaked overhead toward cities across Israel.
An angry Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would continue escalating attacks to stop the Hamas barrage and ordered the military to “take off the gloves” in what it is calling Operation Protective Edge.
“The army is ready for all possibilities,” Netanyahu said after holding a meeting of his security cabinet.
“Hamas will pay a heavy price for firing toward Israeli citizens. The security of Israel’s citizens comes first. The operation will expand and continue until the fire toward our towns stops and quiet returns.”
Hamas also fired a Syrian-made rocket into Hadera — about 78 miles from Gaza, marking the deepest penetration into the country’s interior yet.
‘Hamas will pay a heavy price for firing toward Israeli citizens. The security of Israel’s citizens comes first. The operation will expand and continue until the fire toward our towns stops and quiet returns.
– Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
“Our enemies have developed, and it is getting scary,” said resident Maayan From, 25, about Hamas’ ability to strike deeply into the country. “We have to put an end to this.”
Other Israeli leaders warned a ground invasion could be imminent.
“Despite the fact it will be hard, complicated and costly, we will have to take over Gaza temporarily, for a few weeks, to cut off the strengthening of this terror army,” Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s intelligence minister, told Israel Radio. “If you ask my humble opinion, a significant operation like this is approaching.”
An Israeli military spokesman said the rocket that struck Hadera was an M-302 and was similar to 40 others that were found on a ship intercepted by the Israeli Navy in the Red Sea last March.
The rockets — with a range of more than 100 miles — were made in Syria and shipped by Iran and were on their way to Gaza militants, Israel said.
Despite the interception, Hamas still holds dozens of the deadly rockets, which pack lethal warheads of up to 385 pounds.
Israel has attacked more than 560 targets in Gaza during the past two days.
But in an effort to prevent civilian casualties, the Israeli military makes warning phone calls to militants’ homes, telling them to get out immediately because the building is going to be bombed. Warning leaflets are also dropped from the air before specific areas are attacked.
Palestinian medics say 49 people have been killed in Gaza, including 22 on Wednesday.
Israel authorized a call-up of as many as 40,000 reservists, many of whom would be assigned to the West Bank to free up active duty personnel for Gaza, where Israeli tanks are already massing along the border.