Israel, Hamas Looking to Avoid Escalation in South After Cross-border Attacks

Latest round of violence began at noon on Thursday following the assassination of Isam al-Batash, a Palestinian activist who was planning to carry out a terrorist attack in Israel from Egypt.

Following two intense days on the Gaza Strip border, a semblance of calm was restored yesterday following tit-for-tat attacks between the IDF and Palestinian militants.

In Israel there is hope that the current round of escalation is close to concluding. During two days, on Thursday and Friday, the IDF killed five Palestinians in the territories - four in the Gaza Strip and one in the West Bank. One of the dead was a boy.

Qassam strike - Eliyahu Hershkovitz - December 2011
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The round of violence began at noon on Thursday following the assassination of Isam al-Batash, a Palestinian activist who was planning to carry out a terrorist attack into Israel from Egyptian territory. Batash, known for being a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and most recently to the Ayman Jude faction - a splinter group that broke away from Fatah - was killed in an air strike along with aide and family member Ala al-Batash. Following the strike, the Palestinians fired a number of rockets into Israel, one of which landed in an open field in the Be'er Sheva area.

During the early hours of Friday morning, the Israel Air Force retaliated to the rocket fire, hitting a Hamas training camp in the neighborhood of Sheikh Radwan, west of Gaza City. During the strike, a nearby home containing Palestinian civilians was hit. Two were killed: Hajat al-Za'alan, 39, and his son, Ramadan, 12. Seven other members of the family, the mother and six other children, were injured.

The firing of rockets into the Negev continued Friday and, less so, yesterday, with four more rockets being fired. There were no Israeli casualties in the attacks. The air force also struck another Hamas target, this time causing no casualties.

Meanwhile, the IDF shot and killed Mustafa Tamimi, 28, from the village of Nabi Saleh, north of Ramallah. He suffered a direct hit to the face with a tear gas canister, at short range.

The decision to assassinate Isam al-Batash on Thursday was made after taking into account that there would be an escalation following the attack. However, the conclusion was reached that the attack was necessary in order to disrupt an attack being planned along the border with Egypt.

Batash funded and organized a team, probably a mixture of Bedouins from Egypt, to carry out an attack in northern Eilat.

Two things happened following his killing: The Shin Bet security service lowered the alert level along the border, with the understanding that Batash's death would have made plans to carry out the attack more difficult. And a number of Palestinian factions responded to the killing by firing Qassam rockets, and in one case, a Katyusha.

There were signs that the rocket fire was dying out as early as Thursday. However, a decision was made in Israel to strike again, this time at Hamas. The logic is known: Hamas is the power in Gaza and therefore it must pay a price in any case in which its authority is violated and rockets are fired, contrary to its policy - albeit, a policy that is not always public - which supports calm.

The Gaza attack caused more damage than was intended because a larger blast than expected occurred - probably because a stockpile of ammunition being held in the location exploded. This led to the two civilian deaths.

Israel's insistence to draw a price from Hamas also led, to a certain extent, to the deterioration of the situation, and allowed other factions, not only Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, to take action. Much of this reaction was due to the fact that civilians were killed and hurt.

In the rocket firing Friday, former members of Islamic Jihad and members of the Popular Resistance Committees took part. In one case, a Katyusha was intercepted over Ashdod by an Iron Dome anti-rocket battery. Two other batteries were deployed near Ashkelon and Be'er Sheva.

Hamas has, for the time being, shown restraint, and also gradually began reasserting control over the factions. The group, which is still benefiting from the fruits of the Gilad Shalit deal and is planning for elections in the territories has no interest in a violent clash.

The Hamas leadership in Gaza called on Egypt in the hope that its involvement would stop Israel's response. Last night calm was being restored, but the real test will be this morning, with pupils going to schools in the communities bordering the Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, the disengagement of Hamas from Damascus is becoming a strategic decision rather than the original tactical move, and this is expected to have many implications on the group's policies. Only Friday, Hamas announced officially that it was joining the Muslim Brotherhood, in an effort to benefit a little from the success of the group in Egypt and gain broader support in the Palestinian street.

Hamas is aware of the wave of Muslim activism in popular elections around the Middle East and it is hoping that in the coming elections in the Palestinian Authority, it will be well placed to utilize the regional momentum.