Palestinians inspect the scene of an Israeli air strike on a Hamas security forces site in the southern Gaza Strip October 17, 2018.
(photo credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA / REUTERS)
Wednesday’s Grad rocket fire at 3:39 a.m. from Gaza was a major escalation – especially since it succeeded in hitting a residence, although there were no injuries – and the first time a rocket was fired at Beersheba since early August. Within hours of two large rockets being fired, Hamas and other Palestinian factions in the coastal enclave had denied firing the rockets, pointing to a desire for continued calm.
This leaves many questions about what happened Wednesday morning and how the Gaza Palestinians, Israel and the region will respond.
Palestinian riots and clashes along the Gaza border have now entered their seventh month. Thirty weeks of clashes have killed almost two hundred in Gaza and left thousands wounded.
Israeli politicians have also been pushing for a stronger response as the clashes continue. Incendiary balloons have burned half of the forests and green areas around Gaza, according to a report Tuesday. Increasingly Palestinian teams launching the balloons have been targeted by the air force.
Hamas has been attempting to play both sides in recent weeks. It seeks to bolster attempts to reach a deal through Egyptian efforts to broker a ceasefire and it wants to insert itself into West Bank politics. It has been putting out press releases discussing the West Bank, including critiquing the Palestinian Authority. It also talks tough in Gaza.
“The Israeli threats do not deter the Palestinian people, nor do they break their will,” it said in response to Jerusalem’s calls for tougher action on the Gaza border on October 15.
On the morning of October 17, after the rockets had been fired, it took Hamas six hours to put out a statement saying it was not responsible for the rockets. Why did it take six hours for Hamas to understand its own “militant arm” had not fired on Israel? Obviously it knew what had happened hours ago. Journalist and analyst Neri Zilber postulated on Twitter that the rockets were likely fired by the Mujahadeen Shura Council a “breakaway Al Qaeda-tinged Gazan jihadi group. They do have rocket capacity.”
A Joint Operations command, associated with Hamas and the other Gazan groups such as Islamic Jihad, claimed that the rockets were an “irresponsible attempt to sabotage the Egyptian effort [at a ceasefire],” but also claimed Hamas was ready to confront aggression.
Gaza is not the main issue on the region’s agenda as Turkey and Saudi Arabia are in the midst of a major crises over missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi
. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew from Riyadh to Turkey on Wednesday, seeking to find a way past the imbroglio in which Saudis are accused of murdering the journalist in their Istanbul consulate.
With all eyes on Ankara, including Qatar and Egypt, major regional allies of both countries, the situation in Gaza is being seen more narrowly. Qatari-purchased fuel was recently delivered to Gaza, but Qatar appears to be taking a back seat publicly on the crises in Gaza. This means there are less constraints on both Hamas and Israel in the calculations of what comes next and is likely why Hamas has chosen to deny any role in the rocket fire.
If the rockets were not fired by Hamas, then it will also show the weakness of Hamas and its inability to control the Gaza Strip. It will also show that dangerous weapons, able to target areas in Israel, are in the hands of other groups.
Neither of this is good for Hamas, which is seeking a ceasefire and wants to show that it can call off the weekly protests in favor of quiet. Hamas wants the blockade reduced, but how can it guarantee quiet and security while allowing rockets that threaten areas far from Gaza to be fired? If Hamas’s real calculation was to want it both ways, to threaten and also play at a ceasefire deal, neither Jerusalem or Cairo will accept this Janus-faced stance.
Hamas knows it is out of options in Gaza. It has tried tunnels and rockets and naval commandos and 30 weeks of riots and achieved almost nothing, except the burning of fields in southern Israel. The rocket fire, including a house being hit in Beerhsheba, will provide encouragement for those in Gaza who think terrorism could be effective. This comes at a problematic time for Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar who, despite his reputation as a hard fighter, has indicated he wants a ceasefire and is trying to salvage 12 years of Hamas failures in Gaza.