mortars - Eliyahu Hershkovitz - March 20 2011
A resident of Kibbutz Sufa examining damage to her home yesterday morning after a barrage of mortars struck the Negev community. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz
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Yesterday's mortar barrage on the western Negev is the most extensive operation by Hamas since Operation Cast Lead ended in January 2009. The group has been involved in a few incidents with the Israel Defense Forces since then, but usually on a smaller scale, and it has rarely claimed responsibility.

Yesterday, Hamas publicly announced that its people were behind the latest incident. They said the reason was the Israel Air Force's attack Wednesday on the Hamas training camp in the ruins of the settlement of Netzarim in which two people were killed. That attack had been precipitated by a Qassam strike a few hours earlier near Sderot.

Hamas said - and to a certain extent justifiably - that Israel had exceeded the unwritten rules of the game. The Qassam had been fired by a marginal Palestinian group, and the accepted response would have been a bombing of empty Hamas offices or an escape tunnel without casualties.

As in the previous rounds of violence, the two sides apparently have more in common than they are willing to admit. Hamas coldly calculated the escalation of fire on Israel yesterday, as Israel did in attacking the Netzarim camp.

Officially, Israel says the bombing of a populated camp was not an extreme departure from an acceptable response. It says it had to remind Hamas of its responsibility to rein in the smaller factions.

In fact, it's not impossible that the response reflected the general atmosphere after the murder of the Fogel family in Itamar in the West Bank and the interception of the ship carrying missiles from Iran bound for the Gaza Strip the day before.

Despite the escalation, it seems for now that neither Israel nor Hamas is seeking a broad confrontation. The shortening of the periods between attacks - the previous escalation was a month ago, when Islamic Jihad fired a Katyusha at Be'er Sheva - increases the risk that things will spin out of control to a broader campaign against Gaza later in the year.

Hamas says that all it wants is to bring back the status quo on the border with the Gaza Strip. But Palestinian sources in Gaza say they doubt Hamas' explanation.

The sources say the reason for yesterday's massive barrage is Hamas' concerns about Fatah's calls for reconciliation and unity among Palestinian factions. Last Tuesday, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to visit Gaza to reopen discussions on a unity government. Abbas quickly responded that he is ready to come "tomorrow."

However, Haniyeh's invitation was issued without the knowledge or approval of Hamas leaders in Damascus and the group's military wing in Gaza, who see a possible Abbas visit to Gaza as a problem and risk. Reconciliation could lead to elections, which could jeopardize Hamas' control over the Gaza Strip. A Hamas leader in Damascus, Mohammed Nazzal, said yesterday in an interview on the Hamas website that Abbas' announcement was mere spin.

Clearly, Hamas has a problem with Abbas' move and demonstrations throughout the West Bank for reconciliation. While Ramallah is allowing such demonstrations, Hamas is fighting them. It seems that sympathy for Hamas among the Palestinians is waning, and people are daring to protest publicly against it.

If Hamas leaders had thought that the revolution in Egypt and events elsewhere in the Arab world would play into their hands, things now seem more complex. Over the weekend they felt for the first time, even in Damascus - that bastion of Hamas support - the shock waves of the Arab Spring.