Analysis

Gaza Flare-up: Hamas Changed the Rules, Israel Will Respond Forcefully

To keep the narrative of popular Palestinian struggle intact, Hamas refrained from firing rockets. But the rules of the game have changed in recent days, and it will effect this weekend's border protests

Smoke rises following an Israeli air strike in Gaza May 29, 2018
\ SUHAIB SALEM/ REUTERS

Mortar shelling fired from the Gaza Strip into Israeli communities bordering the enclave Tuesday morning was the first incident of its kind since the end of March, when the mass Palestinian demonstrations began along the Gaza border.

Throughout this period, Hamas has refrained from launching rockets and has prohibited other organizations in the Strip from carrying out revenge attacks so as not to harm the narrative of a popular Palestinian struggle against Israeli snipers. Hamas upheld its tactic despite the fact that approximately 100 Palestinians were killed and thousands wounded by Israeli army fire.

However, a change has occurred in the past several days. On Sunday, after the IDF responded to an explosive charge placed near the border fence, an army tank fired and killed three Islamic Jihad operatives who were near the targeted Hamas outpost. 

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According to the Israeli army, the volley of fire Tuesday morning included about 25 mortar shells, many of which were intercepted by Iron Dome anti-missile batteries. Two additional mortar shells were fired about an hour later.

This is additional evidence of an improvement in the range of Iron Dome, which was not originally developed to deal with threats launched from just a few kilometers over the border, but rather rockets such as Qassams, Katyushas and Grads.

A mortar shell fired from Gaza is seen lying in the yard of a kindergarten in southern Israel, May 29, 2018.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz אליהו הרשקוביץ

The latest firing caused no injuries, but one mortar shell landed in the yard of a kindergarten. It's not difficult to imagine what could have happened and how Israel would have responded if the shell had landed half an hour later, when parents would have been bringing their children to the kindergarten.

During the nearly four years since the 2014 war that Israel fought against Hamas and its allies in Gaza, after which there have been several periods of escalation, Israeli intelligence officials have claimed that Hamas does not have full control over what happens in Gaza. According to intelligence estimates, rockets fired from the Strip showed that Hamas was having difficulty imposing its authority on smaller Palestinian factions in Gaza. 

Now the circumstances are different. Hamas has demonstrated its firm control in recent months and has directed the demonstrations on the Israeli border as it wished, even though they began as an independent initiative.

The height of the flames has varied in accordance with orders from above. A day of clashes involving dozens of dead was followed by days that were almost devoid of violence. Because the Israeli army expected a reaction by Islamic Jihad and warned of it on Sunday, it is reasonable that Hamas also understood what to expect – and that the leadership of Hamas then gave the go-ahead, or at least turned a blind eye, to the firing of rockets.

It is reasonable to assume that the Israeli reaction will be relatively harsh and will also include Hamas targets. The rules of the game that Hamas dictated during the course of the weeks of demonstration are being undermined – and the organization will have difficulty presenting the Palestinian struggle as solely grassroots in nature. Since a large number of explosives charges were placed along the Israeli border in the context of the border protests, the Israeli army has responded with fire, killing Hamas members. 

And since Islamic Jihad entered the picture, it's no surprise that mortar shells were fired in return. It should also be noted that Islamic Jihad is financed by Iran, which has interests of its own in prolonging the escalation in the south after it was forced to rein in the steps that is was taking against Israel in Syria.

The military clash will also have an impact on what is happening in the border demonstrations themselves that are expected to resume at the end of the week. Hamas had already declared its intention to focus its efforts on the border fence around June 5, the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1967 Six-Day War. And earlier in the week, a boat flotilla is planned to make a bid to break through the naval blockade of Gaza.

People inspect the yard of a kindergarten after it was hit by a mortar shell fired from Gaza, Israel, May 29, 2018.
AMIR COHEN/Reuters