Israeli missile strike, AP, Dec. 27, 2008.
An explosion from an Israeli missile strike in the northern Gaza Strip on Dec. 27, 2008. Photo by AP
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The extraordinary tension along the border with the Gaza Strip, which included the unusual launching of a Grad-type Katyusha at Be'er Sheva on Wednesday, appears now to have been a minor incident and not some sort of strategic turning point.

Israel responded to the shooting with a series of air strikes against Hamas and Islamic Jihad sites yesterday, however signals coming out of the Strip last night seemed to indicate Hamas' unwillingness to engage the Israel Defense Forces. As such, despite the dramatic turn of events in Egypt, it appears that the chances are good that the new escalation will be contained within a few days.

The violence began on Wednesday morning with the detonation of a mine near an IDF force that crossed several hundred meters inside the Gaza Strip, east of Gaza City. The IDF responded with tank fire, killing an Islamic Jihad militant. In the evening another Islamic Jihad militant died of his injuries and his colleagues retaliated, launching two Grads at Be'er Sheva.

Intelligence suggests that the IDF was not alone in being caught off guard by the rockets. Hamas and even the leadership of Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip were apparently not aware of the militants' intentions.

This was private revenge, an emotional response to the death of their commander. The fact that Islamic Jihad now holds, not only on the strategic level, many Katyusha type rockets capable of striking targets 40 kilometers from the Strip, made the attack possible.

Israel, for its part, carried out a relatively large number of attacks on three separate occasions during a single day in an effort to stress the message that any attack on communities, and certainly on a city like Be'er Sheva, constitutes a red line.

Since the rocket launch, Hamas took a number of steps to contain the situation. Immediately after news of the rocket attack reached them, Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh called on the leaders of all Palestinian factions to show restraint and avoid escalation.

The Israeli military assessment is that the missile fire on Be'er Sheva does not reflect a new Palestinian policy. The three weeks following the rioting in Egypt have been the calmest along the border during the past two years.

Hamas is eager to let time take its toll in Egypt, where Islamist leaders are making inroads and may result in the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing.