Latest Hamas attack on Israel might come from desperation

Increasingly isolated and under siege from pandemic, Islamist group ruling Gaza Strip could ramp up attacks, expert warns

A young Palestinian has his face painted as he looks on during a Hamas rally in Gaza January 3, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMMED SALEM)
A young Palestinian has his face painted as he looks on during a Hamas rally in Gaza January 3, 2020
The latest rocket attack on Israel, which came on Saturday night, could signal increased desperation in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip over soaring COVID-19 infections and the recent decision by the Palestinian Authority to renew security ties with the Jewish state.
The rocket attack, the second in seven days, severely damaged a building in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon. In retaliation, Israeli fighter jets and helicopters conducted limited strikes on Hamas military bases, munitions-manufacturing facilities and a naval training site early on Sunday. 
“[Hamas’s] options are limited. They can only signal to Israel ‘I’m here too’ by launching a rocket or two or maybe more, depending on the coronavirus situation in Gaza,” Dr. Shaul Bartal, a retired lieutenant colonel and a researcher at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line. 
In the past week, about 20% of the COVID-19 tests in the crowded coastal enclave came back positive. Close to 4,000 people there are infected with the virus, and more than 50 have died.
“If that deteriorates and they need more help from Israel or from others, then the rocket fire will get worse,” Bartal predicted.
Hamas nevertheless refused to take responsibility for Saturday night’s rocket fire, blaming rogue cells and independent missile operators.
Israel’s chief military spokesperson said, as he has after previous attacks from the area, that “Israel holds Hamas responsible for any belligerent activity emanating from Gaza.” Israel’s military was also investigating reports that one of its tanks near the border fired shells into the Gaza Strip without authorization.
The Ramallah-based PA, which runs the West Bank and is headed by the Fatah movement, Hamas’s longtime rival, announced on Tuesday that it was resuming security coordination with Jerusalem, a move condemned by Islamist group.
In the nearly six months since the PA severed ties with Israel over the latter’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank, the two Palestinian sides had been in reconciliation talks.
Last week, two rockets were fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip, and Hamas said they were triggered by lightning.
Dr. Barry Lynn, an expert in atmospheric science and meteorology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and head of Weather It Is Israel forecasts, told The Media Line: “There actually was a pretty powerful lightning storm all over Gaza at the time, so they could use that excuse. You’d think they would build a rocket that wouldn’t be susceptible to these kinds of things, though.”
Still, Lynn said he had never heard of such a thing.
“I know lightning can blow up munitions, but I know [Israel’s] military equipment, for example, is specifically designed to not fire when hit by lightning,” he stated.
Several years ago, Hamas also blamed bad weather for the inadvertent launching of missiles.
Israeli defense officials say Hamas’s explanation is plausible.
Israel’s government says Hamas, which has ruled Gaza for 14 years, is not interested in a prolonged round of fighting because it is struggling with the pandemic.
Since winning control of the densely populated Gaza Strip, Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, has waged several wars against Israel, firing rockets into Israeli border towns – and occasionally farther north than Tel Aviv – and kidnapping soldiers.
“Generally speaking, Hamas doesn’t need a reason to fire rockets on Israel,” Bartal said.
“It’s convenient for Israel to write it off as a mistake or an act of some rogue cell, but at the end of the day, the responsible party has just one address,” he said.
Hamas and the PA have held previous reconciliation talks in Istanbul, Beirut, Doha and Damascus in addition to Cairo. Some had seemed close to agreement.
“The PA basically took out an insurance policy,” Bartal said, referring to its reengagement with Israel.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas “sent his representative, Jibril Rajoub, to sign the Istanbul agreement, but it was merely a tool, a whip,” he stated.
“If [US President Donald] Trump had won [reelection], this could have materialized. But once [President-elect Joe] Biden won and seemed willing to advance a more comfortable agenda for Abbas and Fatah, the PA returned to its former directive,” he explained.
Hamas called the PA decision to renew ties with Israel “throwing aside its values and national principles."