An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On the one hand, the rocket fire on Sderot and Ashkelon bares witness to the fact that Hamas's control over the Gaza Strip has weakened. On the other hand, Israel's response shows that Jerusalem's practical options are limited.
Since the end of Operation Protective Edge some 13 months ago, 14 rockets and mortar shells have been fired at Israel by the Islamic Jihad and small Salafi terror groups, some of which identify with Islamic State. Five of the attacks, including those on Friday, occurred in the past month-and-a-half. There were a few other rockets that failed and fell within Gaza territory. This is the smallest number of rockets fired from Gaza at Israel in any of the periods between the three Gaza operations that have been waged since 2008 (Cast Lead, Pillar of Defense and Protective Edge).
In the past, the rocket fire between conflicts was carried out by Hamas or Islamic Jihad, who for the most part could count on Hamas looking the other way. Recently, rockets have been fired despite staunch opposition from Hamas and the group's efforts to thwart the attacks, or after the fact, to arrest and punish the perpetrators.
Two rockets were fired at Israel on Friday night and one of them landed in Sderot. Nobody was hurt, with the exception of a woman who complained of chest pain. The rocket caused light damage to a parked bus and shrapnel hit a storage shed. It was the first time since Operation Protective Edge that a rocket hit Sderot. It was also the first time since last summer's conflict that an Iron Dome battery intercepted a rocket - the second one which was launched Friday toward Ashkelon.
The Iron Dome was deployed to the area last week due to fear that the Islamic Jihad would retaliate for the Shin Bet's (Israel Security Agency) decision to rearrest and put back into administrative detention
Muhammad Allan, who was released from Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon where he was hospitalized in the wake of his lengthy hunger strike.
In Israel, the estimate is that Salafi organizations carried out both attacks, despite the fact that no organization claimed responsibility for the rocket fired at Sderot. The Salafi organization, the 'Sheikh Omar Hadid Brigades,' which identifies with Islamic State, claimed responsibility on its Twitter account for the rocket fired at Ashkelon.
The rocket fired at Ashkelon was a Grad (an advanced Katyusha), showing that the small organization has improved its operational capabilities. Another conclusion is that the Sheikh Omar Hadid Brigades and similar Salafist organizations, which are multiplying in Gaza, are not afraid to challenge Hamas's rule. And this is despite the harsh response from Hamas, which does not hesitate to arrest operatives of these organizations and in some cases to assassinate them. The boldness of the Salafi groups actions and their increased strength and presence is a bad sign for Hamas - but also a bad sign for Israel.
Israel is not interested in an escalation, and neither is Hamas, which sent messages in this vein to Israel following the rocket fire. This also contributed to Israel's relatively measured response
to the rocket fire air raids against various targets in Gaza, mostly belonging to Hamas. In the IDF statement on the retaliatory air raids, it was written that Israel sees Hamas as responsible for all activity in Gaza and the group remains the address for its retaliation.
Israel's problem is a government policy that sanctifies the status quo, pins its hopes on deterrence and produces diplomatic stagnation. The stagnation is double - both with the Palestinian Authority and with Hamas. It may be that, behind the scenes, secret negotiations are being held through mediators (for example, Tony Blair) between Israel and the political leadership of Hamas, led by Khaled Mashaal, who resides abroad. However, the chance for a long-term agreement that will improve the economic situation in Gaza in exchange for quiet is extremely low, because of the tangle of opposing interests.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government cannot allow itself, for fear of the reaction from the Right, to make an agreement with Hamas. It is also impossible because such a move would hurt Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority, which is in a state of desperation and on the verge of collapse. Egypt as well, which continues to destroy tunnels by flooding them with water and thus intensifying the siege and economic stranglehold on Gaza, will not look kindly on an agreement between Israel and Hamas. Within Hamas as well, there is growing disagreement between the military wing and the political leadership.
Thus, the Netanyahu-Ya'a'lon government finds itself facing again and again clashes on the Temple Mount and in Jerusalem and retaliating to rocket fire from Gaza. Reacting and not initiating. The danger is that each rocket fired or stone thrown or vehicular attack could potentially spark the escalation that spirals completely out of control.