The question of who exactly launched the four rockets at the Sderot area Thursday morning is almost irrelevant. In the four months since Operation Pillar of Defense, Hamas has proved its ability to control the Gaza Strip and enforce the cease-fire on itself and the smaller militant factions. Even if Hamas didn't launch the rockets - and a little-known Salafi group has already claimed responsbility - we have to assume that this was done with its knowledge and that its internal security people know how to prevent such an operation.
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The timing of the rocket fire was obviously no coincidence. “As soon as we heard that Obama was coming we realized we could expect a barrage,” a Sderot resident whose house was hit by shrapnel told Army Radio.
But there could be a wider context. The rocket fire not only conveys that Gaza can disrupt events in the region during a visit by the U.S. president; the rockets landed only days after the new cabinet formed and following reports from Washington that the Obama administration wants to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Still, it’s not clear to what extent these initiatives are backed by action on the ground. At first glance, it seems Gaza is signaling that it can dictate new rules and that nothing important can occur between Israel and the PA without Hamas' involvement or at its expense.
Thursday morning’s rocket launches were preceded by two significant events. Earlier this month, Hamas activists fired a midrange missile from the south of the Gaza Strip that landed in Ashkelon's industrial area. This was the first such firing since the end of Pillar of Defense.
Earlier this week, a Hamas spokesman said the group wouldn't be able to accept repeated Israeli breaches of the cease-fire agreement and would eventually have to respond. He was referring to incidents in which Israeli soldiers had shot Palestinians who approached the fence around the Strip.
Hamas seeks to whittle down this narrow perimeter near the fence, where Israel aims to reserve its freedom to operate within Palestinian territory. But Hamas also has to carefully maneuver regarding its relations with Egypt, which cooled after the previous rocket launch and Hamas' misleading reports to Cairo after the incident.
The next few days will be particularly sensitive. Only then will it become clear whether the cease-fire agreement is holding, or whether these were the first signs leading to a crumbling of the deal after an unprecedented quiet period.
Israel’s room to maneuver is limited due to the Obama visit. Under these circumstances, the main response will probably be limiting traffic at the crossings into Gaza: an economic reprisal. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and new Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon will have to decide if in addition to this step a limited military reprisal is required. That would cause a bit of discomfort during a conciliatory visit by the U.S. president.