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Tensions mounted along the Israel-Gaza border Saturday as Israeli forces attacked a Hamas security site in response to a mortar barrage by Hamas. While Hamas claimed the mortar attack was a response to an Israeli airstrike on a Hamas military camp Wednesday that killed two people, analysts suggest that there were political reasons, rather than tit-for-tat military motivations, for the assault.
In another skirmish Saturday, YNet News reports that two Palestinians were shot and killed by an Israeli patrol along the Israel-Gaza border after the men attempted to set off an explosive device. It is unclear whether the men's actions were tied to the mortar attacks.
The New York Times reports that the mortar attack injured two Israeli civilians, and the Israeli tank and helicopter strikes in response wounded five Palestinians. The Times notes that – in a somewhat unusual step – Hamas's military wing claimed direct responsibility for the mortar attack, which consisted of as many as 50 shells. While permitting smaller Palestinian militant groups to attack Israel from Gaza, Hamas itself has largely stayed uninvolved in direct attacks since Israeli forces ended their incursion into Gaza in January 2009.
Why would Hamas suddenly take credit now? Haaretz cites Palestinian sources who claim that the attack was an attempt by certain members of Hamas to prevent a Hamas-Fatah unification government. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyah on Tuesday invited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to meet with him to discuss a unified Palestinian government, which Mr. Abbas quickly responded positively to.
But, Haaretz writes, "Haniyeh's invitation was issued without the knowledge or approval of Hamas leaders in Damascus and the group's military wing in Gaza, who see a possible Abbas visit to Gaza as a problem and risk. Reconciliation could lead to elections, which could jeopardize Hamas' control over the Gaza Strip."
The Jerusalem Post offers a similar analysis of the attack, writing that Hamas is attempting to distract Palestinian protesters calling for a unification government. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Saturday that Fatah was using the protests to undermine Hamas rule in Gaza, and The Post writes it is that fear that spurred Hamas to attack Israel directly.
Hamas fears that Abbas’s visit to the Gaza Strip would drive tens of thousands of Palestinians to take to the streets to greet him and demand an end to the Hamas-Fatah power struggle.
Ironically, an IDF operation in the Gaza Strip will undoubtedly ease the internal pressure on Hamas. The mortar attacks are aimed at dragging Israel into a military offensive that is needed by Hamas to divert attention from its problems and rally the Palestinian public behind it.
Hamas also cracked down Saturday on the pro-unification protests in Gaza and the journalists covering them. CNN reports that after breaking up a small rally, Hamas security forces stormed the building housing the offices of CNN, Reuters, and Japanese broadcaster NHK and attacked reporters.
Reuters bureau chief for Israel and the Palestinian territories, Crispian Balmer, said one employee was beaten with an iron rod and another was threatened with being thrown out the window. He said a camera was confiscated but was later returned. A TV and a computer keyboard were destroyed by the security forces.
The Hamas forces also seized videotape from NHK. No CNN or NHK employees were hurt. CNN reports that after the raid, Gaza-based journalists staged a sit-in at Gaza City to protest the attempt to censor the press, and they promised to boycott Hamas press meetings in the future.