The Grad-type Katyusha rocket that caused severe damage to a Netivot home late Saturday night, as well as the Qassam rockets launched into the Negev afterward, were fired as part of an ongoing struggle between Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, and more extreme Islamist factions there.
While Hamas usually seeks to maintain calm along its border with Israel, motivated by its desire to remain in power, the extremists, some of whom are former Hamas activists, do not concern themselves with such considerations.
No Palestinian organization has yet taken responsibility for launching the Grad, but it is reasonable to assume it was fired by one of the smaller groups. Inspired by al-Qaida, these organizations are categorized by Israeli intelligence as “belonging to the global jihad movement.”
Saturday night’s rocket fire was very similar to two other incidents last week. On Wednesday night, the Israel Air Force targeted a squad belonging to an extreme Islamist group as it prepared to launch a Grad from the central Strip toward Be’er Sheva, killing three of the group’s members. The next morning, IAF and ground forces struck another squad, which had attempted to place an explosive device near Gaza’s northern border with Israel. That incident, too, ended in the death of three Islamist operatives.
Recently, Hamas has been openly pursuing these factions, including a group of former Hamas members known as Jaljalat. Many of them left Hamas due to an ideological split over Hamas’ decision to embark on a long-term, if not altogether official, cease-fire with Israel.
Only 24 hours before the latest rocket attacks, Gaza sources reported that Hamas had arrested about 20 people on suspicion that they were part of armed Salafist groups operating in the coastal enclave and attempting to fire rockets into Israel.
After the Israel Defense Forces killed six Gaza militants last week, Hamas, along with Islamic Jihad and even the Popular Resistance Committees (which are usually keen to confront Israel), were careful to steer clear of any retaliatory action. The heads of Gaza’s larger factions settled for bellicose statements.
Hamas’ blatant move to ignore the killing of six Palestinians, which broke Gaza’s long-standing rules of engagement, is an indication of the strain between Hamas and the more radical factions. From a broader perspective, this also probably indicates that Gaza’s leaders have had enough of the smaller factions’ attempts to drag it into a military confrontation with Israel at what it sees as the wrong time.
One can assume that Israel will feel obliged to respond to the rocket fire, even though there were no casualties. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted as much yesterday. Since Israel has taken a clear reading of Gaza’s internal turmoil, however, it seems likely to refrain from an all-out escalation along the border a development that interests neither of the main actors, in Jerusalem or Gaza, for the time being.