Israel and forces loyal to the militant Hamas government that controls Gaza exchanged fire this weekend, with Palestinian rockets hitting southern Israel and Israel responding with multiple airstrikes across the territory.
On Friday, Palestinian rockets damaged a building in the Israeli city of Ashkelon. Israel retaliated with airstrikes against densely populated areas of Gaza City and Rafah, injuring scores and killing Hamas military commander Eissa al Batran.
Each tit-for-tat attack raises concerns of an escalation in violence between the two sides, but analysts say the rocket attacks were an attempt by Hamas to scuttle direct talks that President Obama's administration has been increasing pressure on the Palestinians to accept.
Palestinian militants launched their attack on Ashkelon “to send a short message to say no to direct negotiations with Israel,” which were endorsed at an Arab League meeting in Cairo on Thursday, says Talal Aukal, a political analyst and weekly columnist for Al Ayyam, a Palestinian newspaper.
Last week, Hamas warned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas not to relaunch direct talks.
"We warn [Mr. Abbas] of the consequences of returning to negotiations, either with Arab cover or under pressure from America, because this will deepen the divide and put our cause on the the brink of collapse," senior Hamas leader Salah al-Bardawil said in a statement.
First airstrike on Gaza City since the Gaza war
Israel’s airstrike on Friday was the first in Gaza City since the end of the 21-day January 2009 war, which killed 13 Israelis and 1,417 Palestinians, mainly civilians.
It hit a police training center known for producing special security forces for Hamas leaders, housed in a former helicopter hangar once used by Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
The strike sent five explosions booming across residential areas of Gaza City that had begun to grow used to calm, shattering glass in nearby windows and drawing worried neighbors into the street.
At least 28 were injured by the blasts, according to officials in the emergency department of Gaza’s Al Shifa Hospital. Wounded people arriving there had to pass through a crowd of shocked Gazans being held back by shouting Hamas police officers wielding automatic rifles and wooden clubs.
Tense mood in Gaza
The mood in Gaza is tense. Hundreds thronged the streets on Saturday for the funeral of Mr. Batran, whose wife and five children were killed by an Israeli airstrike during the January 2009 war.
At the funeral march, mourners’ chants were sporadically interrupted by machine gun fire. Hamas has sworn to avenge Batran's death.
The larger meaning of this weekend’s violence appeared lost on many of those waiting for news of injured loved ones outside of Al Shifa. But Akram Atallah, a Gazan writer, says that “both sides understand the logic here. If anyone threatens Israel’s security, then it will react violently.”