War Looms as Israel-Gaza Tensions Erupt
Numerous civilians killed on both sides as international mediators attempt to stave off fourth war in past decade
Violence between Israel and armed Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip continued into Sunday, when over 170 rockets fired into Israel (as of 17:00 local time) killed at least two civilians—one at a factory struck in the southern city of Ashkelon and another whose vehicle was hit near a small village along the shared border.
Tensions erupted Saturday, when Hamas and Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad fired some 430 projectiles into Israel. While Iron Dome intercepted around 90 percent of the missiles headed toward populated areas (about 250), at least one Israeli civilian was killed in a blast and scores more were treated for injuries and anxiety.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has over the past 36 hours struck over 250 targets in the coastal Palestinian territory, including the homes of several Hamas and Islamic Jihad commanders. The Health Ministry in Gaza said the air strikes killed at least 16 Palestinians, including a pregnant mother and her infant child along with no fewer than six members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which many countries recognize as terrorist organizations.
According to the IDF, one of those killed was a top Hamas field operative specifically targeted by Israel, a tactic not employed by Jerusalem for years but which some cabinet members are advocating for in a bid to restore deterrence. The individual, named as Hamed Hamdan al-Khodari, was allegedly Tehran’s chief conduit for funneling money into Gaza.
The military exchange began Friday when Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for sniper fire that wounded two Israeli soldiers patrolling the border. Israel responded with strikes that killed two Hamas operatives, prompting an onslaught of rockets.
The IDF has since reinforced its troop presence along the Gaza frontier in anticipation of an escalation.
Islamic Jihad said the missile barrages were a response to the Friday clashes as well as Israel’s delay in implementing various understandings that earlier this year ended months of sporadic fighting with Hamas.
By contrast, Israeli sources have blamed Iran for igniting the violence, just as Gaza’s leaders were negotiating the final details of a potential truce deal with Israel through Egyptian intermediaries.
“The purpose of the [cease-fire] agreement was to keep the peace in Gaza, and Islamic Jihad was talking with the Egyptians while at the same time initiating [Friday’s] ambush,” Yaakov Amidror, former national security adviser to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security of America, told The Media Line.
“Any deal is against the interests of the Iranians,” he continued. “Israel is trying to contain the building of Tehran’s war machine in Syria, so [the mullahs] want to distract the IDF by diverting its attention [to Gaza].”
Notably, Iran’s Foreign Ministry released a statement asserting that the “resistance will prevail and possesses [the tools] necessary to change the equation.”
To this end, Hamas and Islamic Jihad on Sunday released a joint statement threatening to increase the range of their rocket fire to Israeli cities located over 40 kilometers from Gaza, which would place residents of major metropolitan areas at risk.
A Hamas official told The Media Line that during meetings in Cairo “the resistance made clear its readiness to hit Tel Aviv with utmost accuracy.”
Meanwhile, United Nations Middle East peace envoy Nikolay Mladenov denounced the rocket fire from Gaza and called “on all parties to immediately…return to the understandings of the past few months…before it’s too late. Those who seek to destroy them will bear responsibility for a conflict that will have grave consequences for all,” he said.
Mladenov was referring to a tacit truce forged earlier this year between Israel and Hamas, in which the latter agreed to halt all rocket fire and tone down so-called March of Return protests staged weekly along the security fence for over 13 months. In return, Jerusalem had eased restrictions on the entry of goods into Gaza, and reportedly was readying to advance infrastructure projects to help alleviate the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the enclave.
During Saturday’s flare-up, a US State Department spokesperson “strongly condemn[ed] the barrage of rocket attacks by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad from Gaza on innocent civilians.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed the comments, affirming that Washington supports Israel’s right to defend itself.
Prime Minister Netanyahu on Sunday held a security cabinet meeting to discuss potential next steps, while Israeli President Reuven Rivlin vowed to continue striking Gaza hard.
In Ramallah, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the Israeli bombardment and called on the global community to protect Gazans. The PA chief stressed that international complacency had encouraged Israel to continue committing crimes against the Palestinian people.
On the backdrop of the violence, the PA canceled all celebrations ahead of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month beginning Monday during which devout Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.
Daoud Shihab, an Islamic Jihad spokesman, told The Media Line that due to “the [Israeli] occupation’s aggression, the resistance is ready for a confrontation and is capable of opening a wide-ranging front in defense of Palestinian land.”
Islamic Jihad vowed last week to target central Israeli cities in order to disrupt ongoing preparations for the Eurovision song competition, which Israel is hosting from May 12-18. The violence also comes ahead of Israel’s Independence Day this Thursday, and the one-year anniversary of the controversial May 14 relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem.