A 16-year-old Israeli was critically injured on Thursday when an anti-tank missile fired from the Gaza Strip hit a school bus near Kibbutz Sa'ad. The missile attack was followed by additional mortar shelling from Gaza. The launch occurred just four to five kilometers from the target, from a point where it was clear students were on board and it was possible to keep the bus within sight.
A senior defense source told Haaretz on Thursday night that he believes this was an act by the military wing of the organization, and that their aim was to deter Israel and establish a "balance of terror."
According to the same source, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has no control over the situation and the head of the group's military wing, Ahmed Jabari, does not take his views into account when deciding military operations against Israel.
The Israel Defense Forces quickly retaliated for the attack, launching both land and air strikes on Hamas targets in the Strip, the IDF spokesperson said, killing a 50-year-old man and wounding five others.
Meanwhile, the Iron Dome rocket defense system made its first interception on Thursday when it blocked a Palestinian missile in flight, aimed at the southern city of Ashkelon - an operational first internationally.
Israel blamed Hamas for Thursday's escalation; the Islamist organization claimed responsibility for the rocket attack against the school bus, which followed a six-day lull in the exchange of fire. Those who ordered the attack on the school bus likely considered the fact that it could broaden the conflict.
While Israel's response is expected to be serious, at the same time, Israel would like to avoid a lengthy exchange that could result in rockets being launched at central Israel.
A Kornet-type anti-tank missile was fired from the Saja'iya neighborhood in eastern Gaza and struck the school bus at approximately 3:05 P.M. on Thursday, several minutes after a group of students had disembarked at Kibbutz Nahal-Oz. A 16-year old resident of Beit Shemesh was critically injured and the driver was lightly injured.
Hamas first fired the advanced, Russian-made missile last December, but this is the first time the target has been a civilian one. This was not a haphazardly chosen target, and it was clear the bus was carrying children. As the launch occurred within five kilometers of the target, it was possible for the attackers to keep the target within sight.
In other words, the attackers knew what they were attacking, and were clear about the implications of a mass strike on children under the already tense conditions. Such an operation requires relative expertise, intelligence and planning. All of these factors suggest that Hamas was likely involved.
On April 1, the Israel Air Force killed three Hamas operatives in a strike on a target in Khan Yunis. The IDF said the three were planning to kidnap Israeli tourists in Sinai. The military wing of Hamas announced yesterday that the anti-tank missile was fired to avenge the death of those operatives. Apparently Hamas had delayed the response because it had wanted to be ready to exact a higher price.
Both Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz visited the headquarters of the Gaza Division and warned of a heavy handed response against Hamas. Barak said that Israel considers Hamas to be "responsible for all that is taking place in the Gaza Strip. We expect that they understand what is permissible and what is not permissible."
The IDF "will continue its operations and will do whatever is necessary," Gantz said.
It is fair to assume that there is no real wish in Israel to become entangled in a major military operation before the Passover holiday. There is also the evidence that Hamas and Islamic Jihad have missiles and rockets capable of striking the southern suburbs of the Dan Region, a fact which puts the lives of two million Israelis in the line of fire.
Even though it appears the Palestinians will only fire at central Israel as a final resort, Israel is careful not to be drawn into a further escalation. Therefore, the military response will likely last a few more days, without any major ground operations at this stage.
It is important to appreciate the difference between the interpretation of each side to the events in recent weeks. From Israel's perspective, it is taking pinpoint action against specific threats.
Hamas considers these moves as an intentional accumulation, nearing a declaration of war: a series of air attacks on the Strip killing its operatives, the case of Dirar Abu Sisi (the Gazan engineer which Hamas claims Israel kidnapped in the Ukraine), and this week's bombing in Sudan, which has been attributed to Israel. As far as the military wing of the group is concerned, this is a list of actions which require a deterring response - in the form of Thursday's anti-tank missile attack, and the subsequent firing of mortars.
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