Gaza militants fire rockets into southern Israel, snapping period of calm

Today's attack by Islamic Jihad caused only minor damage but sparked widespread condemnation in Israel, which staged airstrikes in 2012 on the Hamas-ruled territory.

Ilan Assayag/Reuters
Israeli onlookers survey the damage caused by a rocket which was fired from the Gaza Strip and landed in the southern Israeli town of Sderot March 12, 2014. Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired at least 20 rockets into Israel on Wednesday, the Israeli military said, in the heaviest such barrage in two years.

The relative calm that Gaza’s Hamas rulers had managed to preserve since their last conflict with Israel in November 2012 faced its strongest test yet today.

Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-funded group that has been chafing at Hamas’s suppression of rocket attacks, fired more than 50 rockets into Israel. The group said "Operation Breaking the Silence" was retribution for "continuous Zionist aggression," including Israeli strikes yesterday that killed three of its operatives, and the recent "assassinations" of four Palestinians in the West Bank. 

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to respond with “great force." Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman went a step further, saying "there is no choice but a full takeover of the [Gaza] Strip," which Israel occupied until 2005. 

Both Israel and Hamas have an interest in keeping the border quiet, however. Israeli military and security officials often talk about the need to “mow the lawn” in Gaza periodically, meaning to keep the Strip’s militant factions from amassing too many weapons.

Gaza's "lawn" appears to be growing only slowly: Egypt has cracked down on smuggling tunnels from Sinai, and Israel recently intercepted a weapons shipment sent via Iran. Today's rocket barrage did very little damage. Only eight of the rockets fell in populated areas according to the Israel Defense Forces, resulting in no deaths and only one light injury.

However, Hamas is in an increasingly precarious position that may force its hand. The Egyptian crackdown against a perceived Muslim Brotherhood ally has decimated Hamas’s revenues, driven up the cost of food and gas in Gaza, and led to the highest unemployment since 2010. 

Privileges of power

Popular disgruntlement weighs on Hamas, which is blamed for allowing its Palestinian resistance credentials to be eroded by the duties and privileges of power in Gaza. This makes it harder to rein in unencumbered militant outfits like Islamic Jihad.

While Israeli officials are aware of the complex power dynamic in Gaza, they ultimately hold Hamas accountable. Israeli artillery fire has reportedly already struck two sites in Gaza today.

"Hamas is responsible for what occurs in Gaza, and it too will have to take into account the fact that won't tolerate fire at us," said Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. "If it does not know how to enforce the quiet, it too will pay a heavy price."

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