Analysis

Rocket Fire by Mistake: Gaza, Israel Write Off Tel Aviv Attack as ‘Incompetence’

The explanations offered by Israel and Egypt for Thursday night’s missile launches from the Gaza Strip raised more than a few eyebrows

An Israeli Merkava battle tank near the border with the Gaza Strip on March 15, 2019.
AFP

The explanations offered by Israel and Egypt for Thursday night’s rocket fire from the Gaza Strip raised more than a few eyebrows. But so far, no convincing evidence has been presented to refute the description of events accepted by both countries: Two rockets were launched at the Tel Aviv area by mistake.

At 9:07 P.M. on Thursday, when a delegation of senior Egyptian intelligence officials was still meeting with Hamas leaders in Gaza over a formula for a cease-fire, the two rockets were fired from a launching pit in northern Gaza. How did this happen? Israel and Egypt claim that members of Hamas’ military wing who were engaged in routine maintenance of the facility launched the rockets by mistake. “Simple incompetence,” as Israel Defense Forces officers put it.

The rockets landed in open areas in central Israel. Contrary to earlier reports, the Iron Dome antimissile system made no effort to intercept them.

This “human error” explanation comes exactly five months after another bizarre incident. Then, at the height of a previous escalation, the claim was that rockets were launched in the dead of night due to a lightning strike.

An explosion caused by Israeli airstrikes is seen on Gaza City, early Friday, Friday, March 15, 2019.
Adel Hana,AP

Nevertheless, Israeli intelligence is sticking to its guns: Bizarre as it sounds, that’s what happened in both cases. In any case, it’s clear that such an explanation serves all sides: It allows the escalation to be halted once Israel has responded.

And that’s exactly what happened. Israel exploited the opportunity to strike more than 100 Hamas targets that had been chosen in advance.

But during the time it took to prepare these airstrikes, Hamas operatives managed to evacuate all the organization’s facilities in Gaza. Thus while two people, both civilians, were wounded in the strikes, there were no other casualties.

Hamas was careful to avoid responding. The people who did fire a few rockets at Israeli communities near Gaza were Islamic Jihad operatives.

And that was the end of the Palestinian response.

Moreover, for the first time in almost a year, Hamas completely canceled the weekly Friday demonstration near the Israeli border to ensure that the situation wouldn’t deteriorate further.

Effectively, therefore, the ritual ended Friday morning. From Israel’s point of view, the escalation was over, partly because it understood that the rockets were launched by mistake and partly because it doesn’t want a large-scale military conflict at this time (and the Netanyahu government doesn’t want one at all).

This is apparently also Hamas’ view. First, because its leaders didn’t approve the launches in advance, and second, because of Gaza’s internal problems.

The second important development in Gaza over the last few days is that protests were held against the Hamas government. It’s no small thing when hundreds of people living in a dictatorship go out to protest over the economic situation.

Granted, Hamas suppressed the protests forcefully, in some cases via the use of live fire. But the organization’s leadership understands the threat that will be posed to its control if these protests spread.

Gaza’s worsening economic distress is currently the most influential factor affecting Hamas’ conduct. Judging by indicators monitored by the IDF, the crisis is worsening despite the influx of Qatari aid.

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Hamas faces growing financial problems due to cuts in support from the Palestinian Authority, American sanctions that are hurting Iran’s budget (and therefore its military aid to Hamas), and the fact that Turkey isn’t rushing to come to Gaza’s aid. Facing such severe pressure, Hamas might try to divert the fire toward Israel, sparking a war in order to stop the protests against it.

Attention is now focused on Egypt’s efforts to broker a “mini-agreement” that would stabilize the situation for two months, until after Israel’s election on April 9 and perhaps also after coalition negotiations to form a new government have finished. The orders the government has given the IDF is that it should work to maintain the quiet while also accelerating preparations for the possibility that war might nevertheless break out.

The situation in Gaza, both its economic problems and the possibility that they could lead to a military escalation, will continue to weigh on the election campaign over the next three weeks. Despite the economic help which the Egyptians and Qataris, separately, are promising Hamas, there’s no guarantee that things will settle down, or that Thursday’s rocket fire — erroneous, so we are told — will be the last incident.