Israel-Gaza violence appears to ease after overnight airstrikes

Palestinian rocket fire had spurred Israel-Gaza violence over the weekend, but Hamas – whose militants were not involved – seems eager to end the flare-up.

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters
A Palestinian militant surveys a training base damaged in an Israeli air strike in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, Sunday.

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A bout of weekend violence between Israel and militants in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip appears to be quieting down, bringing relief on both sides. Hamas, still awaiting the release of more than 500 prisoners under a recent prisoner swap deal, appears eager to avoid confrontation with Israel but must also balance pressure from more hard-line militants in the Gaza Strip.

Haaretz reported Sunday night that Israel planned to reopen the Kerem Shalom border crossing, through which goods enter Gaza from Israel, on Monday after keeping it closed Sunday because of the violence.

Israel launched airstrikes on Gaza overnight Sunday, killing two Palestinians who, according to the Israeli Defense Forces, were part of a cell that launched rockets into southern Israel earlier that night.

The Israeli overnight airstrikes came hours after a cease-fire agreement was reportedly reached, only to be immediately broken by the launch of three Kassam rockets into southern Israel close to midnight, according to The Jerusalem Post. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak defended Israel's strikes, saying in an interview with Israeli Army Radio that the IDF "does not pay attention to empty calls for cease-fires from various terrorist groups," according to the Post. Mr. Barak added that the groups need to "actually stop their attacks" for Israel to follow suit.

The latest round of violence began with a rocket launched into Israel from Gaza last week. Israel retaliated with an airstrike on Saturday on the cell that it said was responsible for the rocket earlier in the week, The Christian Science Monitor reports. A tit-for-tat series of Palestinian rockets and Israeli airstrikes ensued. The overnight violence brings the death toll up to 12 Palestinians and one Israeli, according to the Associated Press.

While Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian factions claimed responsibility for the rockets, Israel holds Hamas responsible since it is the political authority in Gaza. In a cabinet meeting Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Hamas “is responsible for keeping the quiet and preventing fire from Gaza, even if those who carry it out are Islamic Jihad men," according to The Jerusalem Post.

But Hamas's backseat in the weekend violence shows that the militant group, still awaiting the release of roughly half of the 1,000 Palestinian prisoners who are being swapped for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, has little interest in an "extended conflict," argue security columnists Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

In the last cycle [of violence], in August, Hamas joined the firing relatively late, only after it sensed it was losing the popularity contest against the smaller and more extremist faction. But whenever the organization's leaders fear that things are spinning out of control and that Israel might jeopardize their great Islamic-rule project in Gaza, they stepped on the brakes. This time there will be even more incentives to do so: the increasingly close relationship with Egypt's provisional government and the fear that prolonged fighting would delay the second phase of the Shalit deal, in which an additional 550 Palestinian prisoners are to be released.

Hamas officials were not surprised by Islamic Jihad's firing of the Grad after weeks of relative quiet. Had the lull in the fighting gone on much longer Jihad risked fading from the public eye in Gaza. The organization, and especially its Iranian handlers, have no such intentions. Jihad is now squarely back in the forefront of the rejectionist (muqawama) camp, to which Hamas has mainly been playing only lip service of late. In order not to be seen as having turned its back completely on the ideology, for the sake of convenience, Hamas must let Islamic Jihad respond to the killing of its members with rockets, but only for a limited period.

Israeli military officials admitted that there are contingency plans for an invasion into Gaza to "topple Hamas," similar to the 2008-09 incursion known in Israel as Operation Cast Lead, but said it was a "worst-case scenario," the Associated Press reports. "I don't rule out that at some point we might find ourselves required to embark upon a full-fledged operation [in Gaza]," Defense Minister Barak told Army Radio on Monday. "(But) I am not one of those people who miss returning to Gaza."

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