On Saturday morning the Israeli communities on the Gaza border went back to normal. The army canceled its earlier directive and informed the people that they could leave their homes without restrictions. The decision shows that the army wants as soon as possible to put a lid on the fighting that broke out with Gaza overnight into Saturday.
This decision fell even though this was the most serious assault on the Gaza border communities in a year and a half – 36 rockets and mortar shells, hurting no one but causing major panic. Six of the rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome antimissile system. Others fell on the Palestinian side of the fence. Israel responded with airstrikes and tank fire on Hamas targets.
Behind Friday night’s onslaught is Hamas, either in deed or a failure to act. Defense officials still don’t know who fired the rockets, but Hamas isn’t trying to hide. The organization’s spokesmen issued belligerent statements that linked the rocket fire to recent events in Jerusalem.
Rocket fire like this hardly ever comes from the Gaza Strip without Hamas at least consenting by silence. The timing of the fire throughout the night and the division into different areas, while focusing on areas near the fence, seem to reveal a well-organized guiding hand.
Whether the flare-up continues depends mainly on what happens in Jerusalem. For the first time in many months, a violent incident on the Palestinian side made a lot of noise. Linked together are location (Jerusalem, with some of the clashes coming near the Temple Mount), time (Ramadan), and other incidents in Israel and the territories (Israel’s political crisis, the Palestinians’ general election that might be delayed). The Palestinians have managed to disabuse Israel of the hope that events in the territories can remain a sideshow that doesn’t affect the agenda in Israel.
The current wave of violence began at the beginning of the month of Ramadan in Jerusalem around two main issues: the violent, filmed “TikTok attacks” by young Palestinians on Jews, most of them ultra-Orthodox, and the police’s insistence on removing Muslims from the steps at Damascus Gate in the Old City. This past week the situation deteriorated into revenge attacks by Jews, the pinnacle being a violent hunt by members of the far-right group Lehava for Palestinians in central and eastern Jerusalem Thursday night.
During the riots the police’s double standard was clear; they were much more forgiving of Jewish offenders. The policy of the new Jerusalem District police chief was a direct continuation of his predecessor’s. And his superiors’ take was made crystal clear when, on Friday, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana condemned only the Palestinians, completely ignoring the violence by Jews.
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Political developments are also in the background. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved to legitimize the Kahanists in this year’s election campaign, appending them to the Religious Zionism slate to ensure maximum success for them.
Now that they have a representative in the Knesset, it’s no wonder that Benzi Gopstein and his thugs feel that the country is with them when they riot in Jerusalem. Gopstein & Co. terrorized Arabs in the past, but Netanyahu’s actions have legitimized them to play a role in the political arena. This is just the way Donald Trump motivated the masses who stormed the Capitol in January.
The atmosphere heating up between Jews and Arabs came right after it became clear that Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition relying on the Kahanists on one side and the United Arab List on the other. If the violence in Jerusalem and Gaza continues, the anti-Netanyahu bloc will have a hard time forming a government with the other Arab legislators, the Joint List.
On the Palestinian side, less than a month before the parliamentary election, the violence in Jerusalem gives Hamas a chance to flex its muscles in Gaza and act violently against Israel. At the same time, if the friction continues, Hamas might realize its old aspiration of igniting a violent conflict in the West Bank in areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority. And Hamas’ appetite to stoke the flames will grow if its suspicion proves true that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is about to cancel the election after realizing too late that Hamas might win.
For all these reasons, the potential is relatively high for tensions to persist in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, even in the coming weeks of Ramadan. The Arabs in Israel, for their part, are maintaining relative quiet, but if an incident occurs in a religious context on the Temple Mount, they too might take to the streets.
Just a rocket-engine test?
Meanwhile, the Iranian media has reported that the Syrian missile that landed in the Negev near Dimona on Thursday was no mistake but rather a message to Israel. The anti-aircraft missile, of the old Soviet SA 5 type, was fired at Israeli planes during an airstrike in the Damascus area. According to the Israeli military, the missile missed the planes and eventually landed in the Negev after an attempt to intercept it failed.
The Iranian media responded late to the incident, but now it’s reporting its own narrative: The missile was aimed at Israel’s south to send the message that Israel’s most sensitive areas (the nuclear reactor) are exposed, but it didn’t strike the target “because there is no need to create a catastrophe.”
These versions differ, but another incident this past week is becoming clearer. Residents of central Israel posted footage of smoke at a defense facility in the Ramle area. Despite denials by defense officials, reports surfaced that this was an explosion following a serious malfunction during a test.
But the American missile expert Jeffrey Lewis has written that the film indicates a high likelihood that these were the final seconds of a rocket-engine test and that the fire doesn’t necessarily reflect an explosion but rather a normal part of the process. According to Lewis, this seems a reasonable explanation. There are enough serious incidents between Israel and Iran without being dragged into conspiracy theories.