It remains unclear as of yet which Gazan armed terror faction fired two rockets at the southern Israeli city of Ashdod on Tuesday night, just as a historic normalization agreement ceremony between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain was being beamed around the world.
Whichever group fired the rockets was clearly attempting to “spoil” the party, and to push back against the formation of a regional alliance between Israel and moderate Sunni Arab Gulf states. This is an alliance driven by a shared understanding of the top threats in the region—the Iranian axis, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State (ISIS)—and a hopeful vision of a future in which the region moves towards cooperation, security and prosperity.
It is just the kind of message that poses a direct threat to the ideologies and goals of the region’s radical actors, led by the Islamic Republic, which seeks hegemony, and who include Hamas and other armed organizations in Gaza.
One rocket was intercepted by the Israel Air Force’s Iron Dome system, while a second was able to get past defenses, exploding into a street near a shipping center, injuring five civilians.
As the Israeli defense establishment formulates retaliation options, one thing is clear: The rockets signal the distress of the hardline radical Islamist entities that operate out of Gaza. Isolated and facing many challenges, they are anxious over the fact that Gulf states are officially lining up with Israel, and one of these groups felt it had to “do something.”
The Hamas regime that rules Gaza is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood camp, which includes Turkey—an Islamist-run state that represents a regional strategic problem—and Qatar.
The second-largest armed faction in Gaza, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, is an Iranian proxy organization. It is a member of an Iranian network of radical organizations, which stretches across the Middle East. The network includes Hezbollah in Lebanon (the most heavily armed nonstate actor in the world), Shi’ite militias in Syria and Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen. These organizations are funded by Tehran, with most armed and trained by the Iranian Quds Force.
Hamas, for its part, has recently reached a truce understanding with Israel, mediated by Egypt, which it hopes will lead to infrastructure projects in Gaza built with international aid money and the opening up of new outlets for Gaza’s abysmal economy.
Hamas has yet to decide whether it is really a government, a terror organization or a military force, and its attempt to check off “all of the above” boxes means Gaza remains a deeply unstable place.
Nevertheless, in light of its attempt to avoid a head-on clash with Israel at this stage (though this has not stopped Hamas from making ongoing attempts to set up terror cells to attack Israelis), it is unlikely to take any direct responsibility for the attacks.
It did, however, release a statement shortly after the rockets, saying “the agreement between Israel, Bahrain and the UAE is not worth the ink that was poured on it. Our people will continue their struggle to return all of their rights. As far as we are concerned, it is as if the agreement does not exist.”
A tactical break from direct conflict
Hamas representatives have been condemning the agreement for weeks. Still, its leadership is urgently looking to develop projects like an industrial zone, increased electricity production and other initiatives aimed at preventing an economic collapse in Gaza, which could threaten its repressive rule.
As it applies pressure for such projects, Hamas continues to prioritize the military build-up of its terrorist army. The half-billion dollars that Hamas raised in taxes in 2018 on goods coming into Gaza from Egypt did not go to Gazan civilians, but to its military wing, which produces longer-range rockets with heavier warheads, builds drones, digs tunnels and creates attack plans for Israel’s coastline.
Yet Hamas has also prioritized the goal of finding some relief for Gazans with its leader, Yahya Sinwar, concluding that another with Israel would threaten the viability of his regime. This does not mean that Hamas has given up its jihadist commitment to Israel’s destruction—merely that it wants to take a tactical break from direct conflict to preserve its regime, while continuing with unending terror plots, most of which are foiled by Israel’s intelligence community.
The Palestinian Islamic Jihad, on the other hand, has repeatedly worked to destroy past truces between Hamas and Israel. Last year, Israel fought a two-day battle with PIJ, seeking to isolate it from Hamas, while Hamas sat on the sidelines.
Israel launched a targeted strike that killed PIJ commander Baha Abu-al Ata after he organized a series of organizing rocket, anti-tank missile and bombing attacks against Israelis, and ignored warnings to cease his activities. Two days of fighting ensued, in which some 30 PIJ operatives were killed, and some 450 rockets were fired at Israeli cities, towns and villages.
The rockets that took aim at Ashdod on Tuesday are a reminder of the fact that Gaza remains the most explosive arena on Israel’s doorstep, and that the radical entities that are based in it will continue to pose an immediate threat to security.
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