Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Hamas seeks to inflame tension on two fronts

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The manhunt for the three Israeli youths missing since June 12 drew to a close last night as their bodies were found in an open field outside Hebron. The search for the abducted youths in the West Bank over the past two-and-a-half weeks has coincided with a dramatic escalation of tensions in Gaza, as terrorist groups in the Strip have stepped-up attacks on southern Israel. While Hamas has not claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and killing of the three teens; Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaer and Naftali Frankel, Prime Minister Netanyahu has stressed that Israel is certain that Hamas is responsible.

Indeed, analysis suggests that the Hamas terror cell in Hebron, the target of the IDF's Operation Brother's Keeper, which aimed to find the abducted youths, has also been encouraging "rogue terror groups" to inflame the Gaza Strip and open a second front against Israel.

According to Y-Net, from the beginning of the IDF's manhunt in the West Bank until the boys' bodies were discovered yesterday afternoon, more than forty rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel. It was reported that 24 rockets have fallen inside Israel over the past 18 days, with 11 fired over this previous weekend alone. While Israel has said it holds Hamas primarily responsible for the barrage of rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel, officials have conceded that other terrorist groups such as Islamic Jihad are also behind the attacks.

On Friday, in response to a spate of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) launched a targetted attack on a rocket-launching site reportedly belonging to Hamas' military wing. In the wake of four rockets fired into southern Israel on Saturday night, one of which hit a paint factory in Sderot's industrial area which burnt to the ground and sent four people to hospital, Israel launched two separate overnight attacks on Saturday and Sunday. The IAF targetted a travelling vehicle in the centre of the Gaza Strip, killing Muhammad al-Fasih, 24, and Usama al-Hassumi, 29, both of whom were senior members of Al-Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades, "the military wing of the Popular Resistance Committees."

Following the targetted assassination, Israel's Iron Dome system intercepted two rockets from Gaza on Sunday, while another six rockets were fired the same day but landed in open terrain, mostly in the Eshkol region. There were no casualties.

More than anything, this escalation highlights the security threat from Hamas in Gaza, which still holds de facto power on the ground despite forming a unity government with Fatah on April 23. The Palestinian Authority's lack of authority in Gaza, which is supposed to come under the security and military mandate of the newly formed unity government, was highlighted in a previous blog post and can be found here.

Indeed, the timing of these rocket attacks, corresponding with the kidnap and murder of the three Israeli youths, is unlikely to be coincidental. Continued aggression from Hamas further highlights cracks in the new unity-government sworn in last month, showing that President Abbas is either unable or unwilling to stop rockets being fired by operatives from Hamas, his partner in his "technocratic government."

The depth of this political rift is evident not only in the exchange of digs between Fatah and Hamas over the past 18 days about whether to cooperate with Israel in the search for the missing teens, but also in direct statements from Hamas officials themselves about their continued control of the Gaza Strip.

Perhaps most telling of the situation on the ground is a recent statement from Hamas' Deputy Leader, Moussa Abu-Marzouk, who was in fact tasked with ‘reconciliation' with Fatah. Marzouk, deputy to Hamas' political bureau leader, Khaled Mashal, took to his Facebook page on Sunday to stress that Hamas "was on the verge of reasserting political control over the Gaza Strip in light of a leadership void."

He continued:

"The PA has besieged Gaza before the others have done so."
"Today, who is responsible for Gaza's civil servants? Who is responsible for its border crossings? ... Who is responsible for ending its siege? Who is responsible for its electricity?
"Today, I fear that Hamas is being called to return, in order to safeguard the security and well-being of its residents. Gaza does not live in a void; it is neither under the responsibility of the previous government nor is it under the responsibility of the unity government."

Meanwhile, hours after the three youths' bodies were discovered on Monday evening, the IAF launched a series of aerial attacks on Gaza in response to 18 rockets being fired from the Strip into southern Israel since Sunday. Speaking to the Times of Israel, IDF Spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, noted that the air raids were a response to rockets fired from the Gaza Strip into the Eshkol region, which caused damage to several cars and a packaging factory.

Lerner stated:

"The IDF will continue to act in order to restore the peaceful living to the civilians of the state of Israel. The Hamas terror organization and its extensions are solely responsible for any terror activities emanating from the Gaza Strip."

It is clear that tension is mounting on Israel's border with Gaza and at present, shows little sign of abating. Still, there are many unknowns. What does this mean for the future of the Palestinian unity-government? How far will Israel go in cracking down on Hamas and stopping the rockets? What of the fate of the suspected murderers?

Writing for Haaretz, Amos Harel, comments that pressure will continue to mount on President Abbas to walk away from his unity pact with Hamas.

Harel notes:

"In the diplomatic sphere, the finding of the bodies will increase pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to break with Hamas. This has already happened to some extent, since the kidnapping worsened relations between Hamas and Abbas' Fatah party."
"But it's still hard to see Abbas complying with Netanyahu's demand that he break up the technocratic unity government he formed in cooperation with Hamas."

Much of the media commentary over the past 24 hours has been based on speculation because no one really knows what lies ahead. What is abundantly clear, however, is that the Gaza Strip remains an enclave under Hamas military control and that the PA is powerless to deter its political "partner" from launching rocket attacks on Israeli civilians or kidnapping Israeli teenagers on their way home from school. Equally clear is that Israel will no longer be stymied from responding to rocket attacks from Gaza due to the ‘fiction' that the Strip is under the control of a "moderate" Palestinian unity-government.

Gabrielle Debinski


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