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Militants in Gaza launched a fresh barrage of rocket fire into southern Israel today after overnight Israeli airstrikes, underscoring the fragility of an unofficial 16-month ceasefire with Hamas. The latest escalation in tensions began yesterday when Islamic Jihad, another Gaza militant group, fired rockets into Israel.
No Israeli casualties were reported from either of the rocket attacks that targeted the towns of Ashkelon and Ashdod. But the exchange has stirred new fears of escalating tit-for-tat violence at a time when the US is brokering peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The crisis began on Tuesday, when an Israeli airstrike killed three members of Islamic Jihad, according to Reuters. The group retaliated Wednesday by firing more than 60 rockets at southern Israel, which in turn precipitated the bombing of 29 sites in the Gaza Strip by the Israeli Air Force.
This week’s chain of strikes and counter-strikes closely follows Israel’s seizure of a cargo ship last week, which Israel said was transporting Iranian-supplied weapons to Gaza. The Christian Science Monitor reported that the weapons, if delivered to Gaza militants, could put Israel in Gaza’s range:
The shipment, which was expected to be unloaded in Sudan and then make its way overland through Egypt and the Sinai peninsula to Gaza, contained some variation of M302 rockets. Such missiles are quite accurate and could have put about 4 million Israelis in danger if fired from Gaza, according to Vice Admiral Eliezer Marom, the commander of the Israeli navy from 2007-11. He emphasized the ongoing role of Iran in sponsoring terrorist organizations against Israel.
Yet there are hopeful signs that this week’s crisis will not escalate further, writes The New York Times, noting that “both sides seemed to be making some effort to limit the fallout.” The rockets fired from Gaza were not long-range, and strikes from both sides appeared to be aimed at open areas.
It is also significant that Hamas has stayed out of the confrontation, which has involved Islamic Jihad and its armed wing, the Quds Brigade, reports Agence France-Presse.
“Hamas is not joining in at this stage and that’s a good thing," former National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror told the news agency.
An unnamed Palestinian official told Reuters that Egypt -- which controls the critical Rafah border crossing with Gaza, which depends heavily on the crossing for essential goods -- has stepped in to help restore peace.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel warned that Israel would retaliate "with great force" against its opponents. "If there is no quiet in the south then it will be noisy in Gaza, and that's an understatement,” Reuters reported him as saying.
But on Thursday Mr. Netanyahu also appeared to call for a defusing of the tensions. “We have a range of responses, a range of options, and the goal is to bring quiet,” a spokesman for the Prime Minister said Thursday, according to the New York Times. “If there can be quiet, that’s obviously a good thing. The question is: Can there be quiet?”