The dramatic spike in rocket attacks is likely to put significant pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to heed calls for an all-out offensive against the Islamist movement, which Israel and the US consider a terrorist organization.
While there has been intermittent rocket fire from Gaza since the cease-fire that ended the November 2012 Pillar of Defense conflict, Israel has credited Hamas with largely doing its best to keep the various militant factions in line. Today, however, Hamas took direct responsibility for the fire for the first time, sending a barrage of dozens of rockets into Israel in the worst day of such violence in two years.
Over the past week, both Hamas and Israel bellowed threats but signaled restraint; Israel's military said that "quiet will be answered with quiet," while Gaza rocket fire remained mainly concentrated along the border rather than in larger, more far-flung Israeli cities. Egyptian mediators were reportedly close to securing a cease-fire between the two sides.
But the death of six Hamas operatives when a tunnel collapsed last night, as well as three others elsewhere, may have been the final straw for the Islamist movement. Israel had been drilling at one end of the tunnel, which officials said was intended for carrying out a Hamas attack against Israel.
Hamas may feel it has little to lose politically now after having been pushed into a corner over the past year by three powers:
- Egypt’s military leadership, which ousted the more sympathetic former President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and destroyed the vast majority of Gaza smuggling tunnels that provided a lifeline to the territory (and also a covert route for arms and militants);
- The Palestinian Authority, which took advantage of its weakened position to push it into a reconciliation agreement that ended the seven-year Fatah-Hamas divide on unfavorable terms;
- And Israel, which launched a massive operation against what was left of Hamas networks and infrastructure in the West Bank after the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens, arresting more than 400 Hamas members – including many released in the Gilad Shalit deal – and raiding 64 charitable organizations.
A renewed conflict is likely to lead to hundreds if not thousands of deaths in Gaza, as well as massive damage to its infrastructure, and poses a significant threat to Israeli citizens and cities as well.
Egyptian mediators have not given up on negotiating a cease-fire, and elements of Hamas are reportedly still interested. A senior Israeli official was quoted by the liberal Haaretz newspaper as saying that a dispute between Hamas’s political and military wings was to blame for the escalation.
Meanwhile Israel has decided to “take control of the escalation,” moving 1,500 troops to the Gaza border and stepping up air strikes.
“We will escalate the attacks to make it clear to them that it is in their interest to stop the rocket fire,” Haaretz quoted a senior official in Jerusalem as saying. “We are prepared to broaden the operation in case the rocket fire does not stop.”