A group calling itself "Islamic State in Gaza" has claimed responsibility for Tuesday night's explosions and fire at the French Cultural Center in Gaza City, which it described as a "center of moral corruption." But hours later an outfit using the same name put out a statement saying it had nothing to do with the blast.
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No verification could be made of either statement, or of the existence of any group by such a name. Authorities in the Hamas-run Strip maintain that the fire, which followed two explosions and burned for hours until dawn on Wednesday, was caused by a technical fault in the building's generator and gasoline supply.
However, the combustible political and religious circumstances in Gaza have aroused suspicions that the blast was deliberate. No injuries were reported; the center was virtually empty as Gazans were celebrating the Muslim holiday of Eid ad-Adha.
Early Wednesday morning, social media in Gaza received a declaration from "Islamic State in Gaza" that it had set off the blast with 200 kilograms of explosives attached to the building's gasoline supply for its generators. The statement referred to the French facility as a "center of [moral] corruption," adding that the explosion marked the organization's first political act.
Hours later, a printed declaration was posted at various media offices in Gaza City by "Islamic State in Gaza," saying it had had nothing to do with the explosion. This second statement said this group's "mission is to implement Sharia law in Islamic lands and murder the children of Zion," and, in line with this, warned Gazans to stay away from its possible targets as well as from those of the Israeli military.
Sources in Gaza told Haaretz that they suspected a religious or political motive behind the blast, noting that next door to the cultural center is a cafeteria where men and women mix freely, and that across from the center is a major Hamas-run police installation.
France 24 television reported that the center is run under the auspices of the French consultate in Jerusalem, but that there are no French nationals working there, only some dozen Gazan staffers. The French daily Le Figaro quoted a Gaza resident saying, "From the second intifada, through the darkest hours of the blockade and the Hamas takeover [from Fatah] in 2007, the cultural center has always maintained their activities."
A resident who lives near the center and witnessed the conflagration told Le Figaro that the first explosion came at about 11.20 P.M. on Tuesday.
"I immediately rushed to the window and saw flames shooting up into the sky, above the warehouse which has the generator and the fuel depot,” said the resident, who added that a second blast erupted about a minute later. “But the fire did not spread to the main building, which appears largely intact despite the intensity of the flames," the eyewitness noted.
Le Figaro quoted an unnamed "diplomatic source" saying the cause of the explosion was "probably criminal."