GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Gaza Strip Interior Ministry said in its March 14 statement that the movement is following up on the Gaza rockets that were fired in defiance of a national consensus against them, and stressed that measures will be taken against the violators. For the first time since 2014, two rockets were fired toward Tel Aviv on March 14, despite the Egypt-brokered truce agreements between Hamas and Israel. Although the military wings of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad denied responsibility for the rockets fired, Israel shelled dozens of military targets belonging to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip without causing casualties.
This is the first time that the Interior Ministry explicitly declared that rocket operatives, in a time of truce, will be prosecuted. The ministry and Hamas are committed to a media silence when it comes to holding accountable those who fire rockets toward Israel, although it does so discreetly. Holding them accountable publicly would consist of a violation of Hamas' principle of resisting Israel until the liberation of Palestine.
Israeli news sites reported March 15 the arrest of Hamas members who reportedly fired the rockets accidentally, as they were setting them up for any future battle. The reports indicated that the Egyptian delegation told Israel that the movement is very embarrassed, that the operation was not planned and took the movement by surprise. Nevertheless, Israeli estimates and analyses concluded that Hamas deliberately fired the rockets in order to pressure Israel to ease the siege on Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the Knesset’s March 17 meeting that truce talks with Hamas were renewed in order to reach understandings that would calm down the security situation in the Gaza Strip, following the recent escalation.
Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem told Al-Monitor that it is the Interior Ministry’s job to hold accountable whoever violates the instructions of the factions’ joint operating room, considering such actions to be against the national consensus. He refused to make any comments on the incident.
Al-Monitor could not obtain comment from the Interior Ministry.
Ibrahim al-Madhoun, a political analyst and director of the Youth Media Center, Hamas' media wing, told Al-Monitor that he perceives the firing of the rockets to be a matter of pressure and counter-pressure, be it in the Gaza Strip or the internal Israeli landscape. This is why some Israeli parties viewed the rockets as a message to negotiate more than anything else, he added. He said the rockets’ type and accuracy raise a question mark when it comes to the rockets' being accidentally fired.
He emphasized that Hamas does not seek any confrontation as it insists on the lifting of the siege. Still, a round of escalation is possible in case the blockade is not lifted and an implosion is possible in the Palestinian arena, he added.
He said the Interior Ministry’s position is a smart political stance intended to ward off a large-scale Israeli reaction, in addition to being an attempt to save Palestinian civilians from being targeted and to prevent parties from dragging the Gaza Strip into an uncalculated escalation. He said this could mean that it is a message to curb any Israeli reaction rather than to pursue and hold accountable the operatives who fired the rockets.
“The joint operating room is still considering the incident and inquiring into the rocket-firing mechanism since it does not want the same incident to be repeated. All parties would rather go for understandings to control the situation on the ground and enhance the humanitarian situation,” he said.
He noted the Interior Ministry opted for a tactical stance in coordination with the Palestinian factions, contrary to the Palestinian Authority position that is hostile to all forms of armed resistance. He said Hamas is now harnessing all means of resistance, including the mobilization of masses, to the service of its vision for the struggle.
Mamoun Abu Amer, an expert in Israeli affairs and lecturer at Ummah Open University in the Gaza Strip, told Al-Monitor that the Israeli response to the shelling has been balanced, adding that the Israeli leadership, for political considerations, does not want the situation to explode or escalate. “According to the Israeli military intelligence appraisal, dealing Hamas a harsh blow will not serve Israel, which is heading toward general elections next month,” he noted.
He said that at first, Israel thought Islamic Jihad was behind the shelling. Yet later Israeli assessments indicated that Hamas members had launched the rockets by mistake. “It [Hamas] does not stand behind them, or at least, the rockets were not fired upon the directives of its leadership,” he said.
He added that Israel wants to be persuaded by Hamas’ explanation because it falls in line with Israel's present policy toward Gaza, which is to avoid confrontation. He said Israeli news reports on an internal Hamas inquiry to investigate the circumstances of the rocket firings and the cancellation of the March 15 Friday protests of the Great March of Return, for the first time since they started in March 2018, have alleviated the situation.
The Interior Ministry’s statement is a message to reassure the Israeli side that Hamas will not tolerate breaking the truce and that the violators, even though they were its own members, will be held accountable. Moreover, this was the first time rockets were fired at Tel Aviv since 2014, which could have possibly dragged the Gaza Strip into a war if there were any victims among Israelis. This is why the Hamas-led Interior Ministry was quick to contain the risks of a confrontation.
Mustafa al-Sawaf, a political analyst close to Hamas and former editor-in-chief of the local Felesteen newspaper, told Al-Monitor that regardless of whether the rockets were fired by mistake or there was an official decision to fire them, the Israeli response would not have escalated further as there was no loss of lives. “Netanyahu’s objective is to win the election. He does not seek a war against Hamas,” Sawaf said.
Sawaf added that the Interior Ministry’s warning to hold accountable those involved stems from the priority it accords to national interest. It was a warning that whoever takes a unilateral decision to violate the truce will be held accountable, and he stressed that the statement was directed at Gazans. “Its statement does not imply being against the resistance, but rather against whoever breaks the directives of the joint operating room, which is who decides when and how the confrontation shall take off,” he said.
Hassan Abdo, a political analyst close to Islamic Jihad, told Al-Monitor that the Interior Ministry and Hamas’ military wing statements point to Hamas’ attempt to contain the situation and alleviate the Israeli response following Israeli media reports accusing Islamic Jihad of being behind the shelling.
For Abdo, the rockets were more likely fired by mistake. It is an isolated incident that occurred in the absence of any decision from the central command, he said, ruling out the possibility that Hamas was using the firing to deliver a message to Israel.
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