The rockets fired from the Gaza Strip at the Tel Aviv area early Saturday morning were a warning sign from the Palestinians, indicating that the cease-fire that went into effect after an 11-day war in May is shaky.
Two rockets landed in the Mediterranean Sea – one a few kilometers off the Tel Aviv coast, the other much farther away. The flimsy excuse of stormy weather given by Hamas is unconvincing. The impression is that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are trying, each for its own reasons, to pressure Israel into easing restrictions, even at the risk of renewed hostilities in the Gaza Strip.
Saturday’s incident was preceded by a Palestinian sniper shooting at Israeli civilians doing maintenance work near the border fence in the northern Strip Wednesday. One worker suffered minor injuries.
After this incident too, Hamas sent a message, through Egyptian intelligence officers, that this was an exceptional incident, perpetrated by a rogue activist, and that there were no intentions of escalating the situation.
On Saturday, there was another excuse: The stormy weather caused an unintended launch of the rockets. The bottom line is that these were two grave incidents, coming after three quiet months along the border.
Hamas conducts numerous test launches, intended to improve the range and precision of the rockets it makes in the Gaza Strip. Islamic Jihad does the same. But these test launches are directed west, into the sea of the Strip, far from Israeli territory. At least one of Saturday’s rockets was fired to the north, too close to the coast. This led to the weather being used as an excuse.
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Israel was willing to buy the theory that lightning hitting cables connected to launchers was the cause of a nighttime launch at Be’er Sheva three years ago. Then too, accepting this explanation was controversial. This time, Israel is more skeptical, laying the blame on Hamas. The firing may be linked to the organization’s frustration with the pace of progress of the projects for rehabilitating the Gaza Strip and to its wish to pressure Israel and Egypt to act more quickly.
Islamic Jihad has a different agenda. One of its members, Hisham Abu Hawash, is being held in Israel under so-called administrative detention, without charges. He has been on a hunger strike for more than 130 days and his condition is deteriorating, with an immediate risk to his life. After the rocket fire, media outlets in Gaza quoted Islamic Jihad officials as saying the rockets would continue. They demanded Abu Hawash’s release.
Early on Sunday Israel responded to the rockets by striking several targets in Gaza, including a Hamas rocket manufacturing site and military posts. This is part of its deterrence strategy vis-a-vis Palestinian organizations in the Strip. But it isn’t eager for further escalation.
As usual, the timing is inconvenient for the government. It has more urgent priorities, from the Iranian nuclear program and the growing strength of Hezbollah to the fifth wave of the coronavirus pandemic. This issue is one all of Israel’s recent governments have had to face.
It has become harder to deal with, for both political and military echelons, with the rockets coming precisely during a week in which both politicians and the military claimed they have succeeded in changing the rules of this equation and creating deterrence in the Palestinians. It appears that Israel neglected to inform Gazans of the changes in its talking points.
The Bennett-Lapid government has an additional problem, a unique one. This is the first coalition in Israel to rely on a significant Arab partner, the United Arab List. All parties realize that an extensive military operation in the Gaza Strip will put UAL chair Mansour Abbas in a difficult spot, which could further undermine the fragile state of this government. On the other hand, a lack of response will play into the hands of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who may assail the government for doing nothing about terror attacks.
The tension in the Gaza Strip comes on top of the tension in the security wings of Israel’s prisons. In addition to the case of the Islamic Jihad administrative detainee now on hunger strike, there is a confrontation between the Israel Prison Service and Hamas prisoners as well.
Two weeks ago, after a guard was stabbed and injured slightly by a prisoner at Nafha Prison, Hamas prisoner leaders were placed in isolation. The prisoners responded by refusing to leave their cells, threatening to hurt other guards.
Last week there were talks between Hamas representatives and intelligence officials at the prison service, meant to calm the situation. The negotiations exposed a rift within the corrections agency, with some senior officials seeking to restore calm and others supporting harsh punitive measures against prisoner leaders.
Hamas’ representatives and senior prison officials in the southern district will meet Sunday. Prisoners are disappointed, being under the impression that the negotiations between Israel and Hamas over a prisoner swap are stuck and that the chances are slim that any progress will be made soon.