Analysis

Hamas Rockets Send a Message to Israel: Don't Celebrate, We Aren't on Your Side

Israel believes Saturday's fire came from lone Hamas activists, but the group's leadership was pressured to act ■ Strike that killed family of eight has to be thoroughly examined by the army, to understand what went wrong

Israeli soldiers at the Gaza border, November 15, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkowitz

The celebrations were a bit premature, as were the cries of victory. The warm public embrace that Israel gave Hamas after it avoided firing at Israel over the two days of escalation in the Gaza Strip last week, and in spite of the deaths of 34 Palestinians from aerial attacks, boomeranged. Hamas, which in Gaza had been openly accused of collaborating with Israel, responded early Saturday morning by launching two rockets at Be’er Sheva.

The rockets were intercepted by an Iron Dome battery. In response, the Israel Air Force attacked the Gaza Strip – but the targets were different from the ones chosen during the escalation in the middle of the week. Throughout the escalation, which began with the assassination of Baha Abu al-Ata, a senior Islamic Jihad commander, the Israel Defense Forces took care to attack Islamic Jihad targets and completely avoided clashing with Hamas. This time Hamas targets were once again attacked, accompanied by the regular message from the IDF Spokesperson’s Office over the past few years: Hamas is responsible for everything that goes on in the Strip and will suffer for the terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians.

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The Israeli response to the rocket fire at Be’er Sheva was rather restrained: No one was killed in the counterattack. Since all the right-wing parties (except for Yisrael Beiteinu) have entered the transition government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, we no longer hear the complaints about Israel’s weakness in the face of terror.

A few hours after the Be’er Sheva attack, defense officials assessed that Hamas was really behind the rocket fire, but added a reservation: It seems the rockets were launched by “rebellious” activists, against the wishes of the movement’s leadership. It is possible that this assessment is based on a meticulous intelligence analysis, but why Israel volunteered to serve as a spokesperson for Hamas and its concerns is still not clear.

In spite of the impressions one could have gotten from the statements of a number of members of the security cabinet, Hamas is not an Israeli agent. The buildup of events of the past week created a temporary meeting of interests between the couple. The death of Abu al-Ata removed an obstacle from the path that interfered with both sides in the attempts to reach a long-term understanding. And the bloodletting of Islamic Jihad members did not bother Hamas enough to decide to participate in the rocket fire.

But since then, new circumstances have put pressure on Hamas to act. Senior Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar was attacked while consoling mourners from Abu al-Ata’s family, eight Palestinian civilians were killed in an Air Force bombing, and Hamas belatedly announced that one of its men had been killed in a different Israeli attack.

Islamic Jihad activists in Gaza, November 14, 2019.
IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ Reuters

The response to these events was the rocket fire at Be’er Sheva, which sent a message saying that Hamas was coming back and taking part in the resistance against Israel – whether it began as a rebellious independent initiative or was carried out on instructions from above. Hamas and Islamic Jihad both announced they would continue to operate the joint operations room for the Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip. In other words, all the factions are taking part in the violent struggle, but Hamas is the one who wants to dictate the policy.

The past week in Gaza was packed with dramatic developments: The killing of Abu al-Ata, the rockets aimed at the south and the Tel Aviv area, the failure of Islamic Jihad to cause damage to Israel, and Hamas’ decision to avoid launching rockets – and then came the attack on Hamas targets on Saturday. Now a new balance is beginning to form, without Abu al-Ata but with Hamas, which is trying to handle harsh criticism from within, and is meanwhile expecting Israel to greatly ease the blockade on Gaza in return for a promise of long-term quiet.

Other fault lines exist too, internal ones like the power struggle between the Hamas leadership and the activists on the ground, and the frustration among members of the Islamic Jihad military wing over the decision – which seems to have been made mostly by the headquarters in Damascus – to have them hold their fire. The media reports last week focused on the killing of Abu al-Ata, but minutes after that attack, the Damascus home of Akram Al-Ajouri, the No. 2 man in Islamic Jihad who is considered to be the leader of the military wing, was attacked from the air.

Islamic Jihad announced that Ajouri’s son was killed and he was saved, but so far, no pictures showing his condition have been released. This has created a broad opening for tension between the group’s new leader, Ziad Nahala, and the members of the military wing – in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere.

A fatal mistake

Yaniv Kubovich’s report revealed the details behind the fatal mistake that led to the deaths of eight members of a Palestinian family in Dir al-Balah on early Thursday morning. The house, in fact a sort of shack, was included in the IDF’s so-called target bank for the operation, but the details about it – and the presence of people inside – were not up to date.

A long list of bodies are responsible for preparing the list of targets to be attacked, including the Intelligence Directorate, the IDF’s Operations Directorate, Southern Command and the Air Force. To enter a target in the this target bank requires “incriminating” it: gathering information that testifies to the connection between the location and a terrorist organization, or terrorist activity. After that, a periodic process of validating the target is conducted – a reexamination of the facts to confirm the site still serves for its previous use. This applies to weapons production lines, arms warehouses, offices of terrorist organizations and training facilities, to name a few.

Classmates of the children killed in the strike in Dir al-Balah, November 16, 2019.
IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/Reuters

Before the attack itself, another step is usually carried out, which can be called “cleaning”: Assembling all the intelligence gathering means around the target to examine if people are present, and if those who are present are legitimate targets for attack. Sometimes, when the IDF wants to make sure that no civilians are present there, or when for its own reasons decides not to kill the activists who are there, various warning actions are conducted, such as the “knock on the roof,” to empty the location before it is bombed and completely destroyed.

From reading the IDF’s initial responses to the incident in Dir al-Balah, the suspicion arises that this time, not all the required checks were conducted. Eight people from one family were killed when the shack was blown up, and photos from the scene show items that provide evidence of civilians living there for a long time. There are two possible explanations for the problematic results: Either someone in the chain of involvement did not properly check the site – and eight people usually leave signs they are living there – or the extent of preliminary checks was lowered as part of the instructions during the wide-scale attacks.

This is a matter that the military, or preferably an outside body, must investigate in depth. Israel has full right to defend itself from rocket fire, but it cannot dismiss the killing of civilians during such operations with a shrug of the shoulders and explanations of the type: “When you cut down trees, chips fly.” This is also true even if it looks like public opinion is not especially bothered by it and most of the media organizations in Israel are rather unconcerned by the results of the incident.

Tense times ahead

The escalation in Gaza, and shaky cease-fire that followed, occurred while a serious and worsening political crisis was underway in Israel. The results of the round of violence, before the announcement of the cease-fire on Thursday, were described as a victory for Netanyahu. But now he is expected to face a no less dramatic conflict, in light of the expected announcement that an indictment will be filed against him. Meanwhile, the days allotted to his rival, Kahol Lavan head Benny Gantz, to form a government are quickly running out.

The level of political hysteria is on the rise, and with it, the statements coming from Netanyahu and his inner circle, like those of the intention to “bring out millions” against a minority government established with the support of the Arab parties, and the threat to “set everything ablaze” – this, according to a report on the Ynet news website that was denied later by the Prime Minister’s Office.

These seem to be sensitive times, when it would be best to very carefully watch the considerations and actions of the politicians, even in the area of defense.