x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Israel threatens to step up military attacks on Gaza Strip

As Israel and Hamas exchange fire, analysts say that the attacks are a case of political manoeuvring and not a desire for all-out war.

Relatives of Palestinian Matter Abu Al Atta, who was killed in Israeli shelling on Saturday, mourn him during his funeral in Gaza City.
Relatives of Palestinian Matter Abu Al Atta, who was killed in Israeli shelling on Saturday, mourn him during his funeral in Gaza City.

JERUSALEM // Israel threatened yesterday to escalate attacks on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip amid renewed fighting that analysts described as more political manoeuvring than desire for full-scale war.

Israel's military and Gaza-based fighters have traded rockets, mortars and air strikes since Saturday that have killed six Palestinians and injured Israeli soldiers and residents near the coastal enclave.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, said he was "prepared to escalate" military action on Gaza, warning "Israel won't sit by idly in the face of attempts to attack us".

More than 50 rockets had reportedly struck Israel since the military wing of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) claimed responsibility for a Saturday attack on an Israeli military patrol near the territory's border fence. Israel responded with tank-shelling barrages and air strikes.

A Hamas health ministry official said an unspecified number of those Israeli strikes took out a Palestinian rocket-launching squad, killed six and wounded 30. Israel does not publish statistics on munitions it fires on Palestinians.

Talal Okal, an independent analyst based in Gaza, said neither side wants a repeat of Israel's 2008-2009 war on the territory that killed 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

Israeli leaders probably want to prove their security credentials ahead of general elections in January, he said. Hamas also wanted to trumpet its resistance credentials, and its leaders increasingly feel more confident in permitting rocket fire at Israel because of backing from Egypt's Islamist government and Qatar's emir.

The flare-up is the latest since a three-day escalation last month, which killed eight Gazans and sent residents of nearby Israeli communities scrambling for cover from Palestinian-fired rockets.

By attacking each other more frequently in recent months, Israel and Hamas have strayed farther from the informal truce both have fitfully observed after Israel's three-week bombardment of Gaza that began in December 2008.

But the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, struck a cautious tone in remarks broadcast yesterday on Army Radio, saying the military "has responded severely and is considering further responses".

Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, called the escalation "dangerous" and demanded it "stop immediately". He refrained from vowing further attacks.

"Hamas knows that the Israelis can no longer do whatever they want in Gaza, like in 2008, so they [Hamas] are exploiting this to strengthen themselves here," Mr Okal said.

Hamas, too, has begun claiming more such attacks on the Israeli side of the concrete perimeter fence separating it from Gaza, journalists Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff wrote in Israel's Haaretz newspaper yesterday.

The Islamist group's armed wing claimed responsibility for detonating explosives inside a tunnel on Thursday that injured an Israeli soldier.

"Until recently Hamas had focused its tactical efforts on the 'perimeter', an area a few hundred metres wide on the western, Palestinian side of the border fence that [Israel's military] occasionally enters in search of explosive devices," they wrote.

Rarely claiming responsibility for attacks in recent years, Hamas has usually restrained armed factions in Gaza from firing rockets at Israel.

hnaylor@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Bloomberg News