In Shift, Israel Refrains From Hitting Hamas for Islamic Jihad's Rockets

The Israeli government treated Tuesday's rocket attack differently, to prevent escalation that could disrupt efforts to reach cease-fire with Hamas

Islamic Jihad militants in Gaza, march 2019.
Reuters

Contrary to its usual practice, the Israeli army refrained from responding to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, which may indicate the government is changing its policy.

So far, Israel has viewed Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, as responsible for all rocket launches from the enclave and has retaliated against them.

This time, however, Israel treated the attack as an outside effort to sabotage Hamas’ attempts to reach a cease-fire that didn’t justify retaliation.

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The military's goal in avoiding retribution is to prevent an escalation that would undermine efforts to forge a cease-fire agreement in Gaza.

Israel Defense Forces Spokesman Ronen Manelis said Islamic Jihad launched the rocket without Hamas’ knowledge or consent, and therefore, Israel would not respond militarily. However, the army minimized on Tuesday the fishing zone for Gazans from 15 nautical miles down to six.

In an unusual move, the IDF also named Islamic Jihad’s northern district commander, Baha Abu al-Ata, as the person responsible for the rocket launch. This may have been an implicit threat that if the rocket fire continues, the Israeli army could opt to harm senior Islamic Jihad officials.

The army’s statement also noted that the rocket was fired on orders from Ziyad al-Nakhalah, Islamic Jihad’s deputy secretary general, who doesn’t live in Gaza.

Islamic Jihad, however, blamed Israel for the escalation. An official in the organization’s political wing said the launch intended both to test out the military wing’s arsenal and to send a message to Israel.

“All the parties feel that Israel is evading the commitments it gave, which increases tension and triggers anger ahead of the month of Ramadan,” he said.

Asked if his organization can act without Hamas’ permission, he responded that in recent months, Islamic Jihad has been growing stronger and operating with more freedom than in the past.

Hamas activists added that the rocket launch was received with understanding by Gaza residents, given their disappointment with Israel’s behavior.

“They told us to calm things down because of the elections,” he said, referring to Israeli officials. “We even reduced the level of violence near the [border] fence. We stopped the [incendiary] balloons and the nighttime operations, but we didn’t get anything. Does Israel expect us to sit with crossed arms?”

Sources in Gaza said similar messages had been conveyed to Israel via Egypt and the United Nations. In these messages, Hamas asked Israel to accelerate implementation of their indirect understandings, which include letting Qatar trasfer money into Gaza, easing the passage of goods and people through the border crossings and implementing humanitarian projects.

Israel also viewed the rocket launch as an effort to embarrass Egypt, which has treated Islamic Jihad as a partner to any possible deal and has been careful to include its representatives in the cease-fire talks.

In February, the Israeli military even said that Egypt’s policy had succeeded in making Islamic Jihad feel a commitment to Hamas and its efforts to negotiate a truce.

Army sources also said at the time that even though Hamas had lost control over some of what was happening in Gaza, it still had the power to prevent rocket fire if it so chose, and was allowing it only because the past year’s demonstrations along the border hadn’t produced the desired results.