x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Tit-for-tat strikes pose dilemma for Hamas

Analysts say Hamas is trying to appear tough with Israel without alienating it allies, who want the rocket attacks to stop.

Palestinian women react during the funeral of Ayoub Assaleya, 12, who was killed in an Israeli air strike Sunday.
Palestinian women react during the funeral of Ayoub Assaleya, 12, who was killed in an Israeli air strike Sunday.

JERUSALEM // Israeli air raids on the Gaza Strip yesterday killed a 12-year-old boy and two other Palestinians, bringing the death toll during three days of fighting to 18 Palestinians, according to medical sources.

The spike in tit-for-tat violence is one of the worst since Israel launched its three-week war on the Palestinian enclave in December 2008.

Analysts attributed the escalation of mortar and rocket fire, in part, to a bid by Gaza's Hamas rulers to prove they had not gone soft on Israel. Previously, the Palestinian-Islamist group had prevented such attacks.

"To save some face in terms of Palestinian resistance, Hamas has allowed this response to happen," said Mkhaimar Abusada, professor of political science at Gaza's Al Azhar University.

Fearing Gaza-fired projectiles, Israeli authorities yesterday cancelled school for thousands of students in the south of the country. Two rockets reportedly struck the southern city of Be'er Sheva. Local media have reported more than 120 rockets and mortars being launched at Israel since Friday after an Israeli air strike killed Zuhir Al Qaisi, the leader of Gaza's Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), a militant group not affiliated with Hamas.

Israeli air attacks yesterday killed two bystanders, 12-year-old Ayoub Assaleya and a 60-year-old farm guard, as well as Deib Salim, 24, a known fighter.

Israel's military also confirmed attacks to Reuters in a statement, including targeting fighters "in the final stages of preparing to fire rockets at Israel". It said it would look into reports of Ayoub's death.

The fighting has inflamed anti-Israel sentiment across the region. Iran's foreign ministry called Israel's attacks "war crimes" in a statement published on the official IRNA news agency.

Jordan's government spokesperson, Rakan Majali, called them "barbaric aggression" and referred to Israel's oft-proclaimed security concerns as a "pretext to kill Palestinians in Gaza".

Jordan is one of two Arab countries that maintains a peace treaty with Israel. The other is Egypt.

Egyptian intermediaries are reportedly pressing Israel and Hamas to end the hostilities. Neither side seems keen for a repeat of the 2008 war, which killed up to 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

Other factions in Gaza are vowing to press on. Islamic Jihad's leader, Khaled Batch, said yesterday there "is no room to talk about calm considering the continued Zionist aggression against Gaza".

Israel's nationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, suggested in an interview with Israel Radio yesterday that Israel was preparing large-scale military operation, although he did not provide details.

"We will not accept the constant disruption of life in the south of Israel and I advise all heads of terror to think well about their actions," he said.

During his weekly cabinet meeting yesterday, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, vowed to fight for "as long as it is necessary." He said Israel had exacted from Gaza's militants "a very high price".

He praised his country's missile defence system, Iron Dome, which intercepted 33 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip since Friday, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported.

The recent fighting was triggered by an Israeli air raid on Friday that killed Al Qaisi.

Israel said Al Qaisi was planning attacks from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. In August, Israel targeted PRC members in Gaza in response to militants who crossed into Israel from Egypt and killed eight Israelis near the city of Eilat.

Such groups have had to plot attacks from Sinai since Hamas had restricted their activities in Gaza, analysts said. But given a surge in public anger at Friday's attack, Hamas was forced to allow the PRC and Islamic Jihad to respond.

Both groups have claimed responsibility for most rocket attacks since Friday. Hamas, meanwhile, has not issued any claims of responsibility about the attacks.

"Hamas is under a lot of pressure and has to allow these groups to respond in some way," said Hani Masri, an independent Palestinian analyst who lives in Ramallah. "But at the same time, Hamas doesn't want to end its hudna [informal truce] with Israel."

Hamas appears to be torn by competing relations with Iran and Syria and much of the rest of the Middle East. Iran may be pressing groups it supports in Gaza, such as Islamic Jihad, to press Hamas to retaliate harder.

Hamas-Iran ties have suffered because of Hamas's strained relations with Tehran's primary ally, Syria, where Hamas had its headquarters.

Islamist groups in Egypt and Tunisia, meanwhile, have been instructing Hamas to refrain from fighting Israel, Mr Masri said. In return, they have offered political support.

"They're telling Hamas: 'Give us time and we'll support you. But keep this situation calm, please'," he said, adding that these groups hoped to moderate Hamas and improve relations with Europe and the United States.

hnaylor@thenational.ae