JERUSALEM             -            Israel said a rocket was fired from the Gaza Strip into its southern territory Wednesday, forcing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be hustled from a stage during an election rally in the city of Ashkelon.

The Israeli military said its air defense system, known as Iron Dome, intercepted the rocket. There were no reports of casualties. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz posted a video on its website showing Netanyahu being taken to a shelter as he was campaigning hours before the primaries of his Likud party. The video showed Netanyahu and his wife slowly walking off the stage with security guards after sirens went off.

Early Thursday, Israeli fighter jets and helicopters carried out multiple strikes at three military bases for Hamas, the Islamic movement that rules Gaza, according to witnesses in Gaza. No casualties were reported as the sites have been empty.

There was no immediate comment from Israel’s military. Netanyahu says he knows how to protect Israel, but opponents accuse him of being soft on handling threats from Gaza.

Gideon Saar, Netanyahu’s challenger in Thursday elections, called in a Twitter statement for a “broad national consensus for dismantling the military infrastructure” of Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

A similar incident happened in September when Netanyahu was in the nearby city of Ashdod. He was campaigning then for the second general Israeli election of the year. That was believed to have triggered Israel’s targeted killing of a senior commander in the Islamic Jihad in November. Israel and Gaza militants had their worst round of fighting in months as a result.

No Palestinian group claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack. Such sporadic launches of rockets and ensuing Israeli airstrikes have happened frequently despite an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire that ended two days of fighting in November.

Hamas seeks “understandings” with Israel to alleviate Gaza’s economic and humanitarian crises. The militant group stayed on the sidelines during the November flare-up.

Netanyahu faces party leadership challenge

Israel’s embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced a fresh challenge to his power on Thursday as his Likud party held leadership primaries in the run-up to a national election, the country’s third in under a year.

Netanyahu, head of Likud for the past 14 years, is widely expected to retain the right-wing party’s leadership. However, the challenge has added to pressures that have mounted this year on the four-term premier, who is under indictment and fighting for political survival.

In November, Netanyahu was charged for corruption in three criminal cases and he has twice failed to form a government in the wake of two inconclusive national ballots, held in April and September. Netanyahu’s centrist rival in those elections, Benny Gantz, was also unable to form a coalition government, which has led Israel to political deadlock and an unprecedented third election.

Netanyahu has cast the legal case against him as a political witch-hunt orchestrated by the media and the Israeli left in the hopes of ousting a popular right-wing leader. Though the troubles of ‘King Bibi’ as he is nicknamed by his fans, do not seem to have dented the loyalty Netanyahu commands among his supporters, some Likud members have said it is time for fresh leadership. His challenger in the party primaries, Gideon Saar, a former education and interior minister and a popular member of Likud, has said that the party is unlikely to regain power in the March 2 election unless Netanyahu steps aside.

Netanyahu, who has served as prime minister for more than a decade, has dismissed Saar’s challenges, talking up his security credentials and international prowess. Some 116,048 Likud members are eligible to vote in the party primary, though stormy weather could keep some of them at home. Results are expected by Friday morning.