Rocket sirens blared in Israel’s Eshkol region on the morning of December 19. Shortly thereafter, an explosion was heard. After security forces canvassed the border area, an impact site was located in an open field. No casualties were recorded. It was the third time since the summer war between Israel and Gaza-based militant groups that such factions have fired high-trajectory projectiles into Israel.
During the early morning hours of December 20, an Israeli warplane struck a Hamas training facility in the Khan Younis area of the southern Gaza Strip. No casualties were reported, but the site was supposedly destroyed. Hamas said the air strike was an escalation. It was the first time Israel launched an air strike into the Gaza Strip since the summer war.
The exchange of fire does however underscore continued tensions along the Israel-Gaza border. Several other border incidents and attacks have taken place, which prompted Israeli armor on one occasion to shell militant positions in the south Gaza Strip. There have also been a persistent number of security incidents in northern Gaza near Jabaliya, on the Israeli border. On a number of occasions, Palestinians approached Israeli defenses there, threw stones and burned tires. Israeli forces then responded with gunfire, which has led to several casualties. Such repeated incidents seem pointless, but point to Hamas efforts to test Israel’s defenses in the area. They are likely aiming to record Israel’s response times to possible infiltrations and willingness to use force. More broadly, Hamas could be seeking to eventually erode Israel’s security perimeter in the area, by making encroachments so routine they become tolerated. Placing explosives on the border while Israeli soldiers are distracted by rioters is also another possible objective.
Overall, this latest escalation, albeit localized, was not unexpected. Although it remains unclear who fired the short-range rocket, Hamas has rattled its sabers in recent weeks. Numerous rocket test firings were recorded, with most landing in the sea. Such tests were most likely aimed at testing weaponry, training new recruits, but also sending a deterrent message to Israel. Hamas also displayed its fighters and weaponry earlier this week with a massive parade, and held military drills. The show of force, however, may have also compelled Hamas’ local rivals to instigate a clash with Israel, so as to upstage Hamas or draw it into another conflict with Israel at an inopportune time.
Despite this possibility, the latest rocket attack comes on the heels of countless Hamas threats to renew war with Israel, especially over the rate of construction following this summer’s escalation. Israel has been accused of slowing the rate of goods entering the strip. Furthermore, reports emerged this week that Gaza has received only a tiny fraction of reconstruction aid promised by foreign donors. Hamas routinely uses force or the threat of it, to extract financial and diplomatic concessions from both Israel and foreign states. The threat of another escalation could compel Israel and foreign states to rethink their policy on aid. Moreover, Hamas is also said to have re-secured its defense ties with Iran after several years of tensions. Over time, Iranian influence in Gaza, mainly arms deals, will have an effect on the sustainability of ceasefires.
Concerning the actual exchange of fire, a similar pattern is evident. A lone rocket attack causing no casualties or damage, by chance, prompts an Israeli military response. Israel’s target choice was not random. A facility associated with Hamas, but empty and in the middle of the night. This was done precisely to show Hamas that it is not deterred to use force, but avoiding inflicting a significant number of casualties that could spawn another escalation. Such policies are merely short-term solutions to a broader problem, as was evident from three wars from similar circumstances since 2008. Slowly but surely, rocket fire escalated, and so did Israeli air strikes. In the past, this led to a situation in which tensions were so high, all that was needed was a political decision by either side to instigate a war.
The coming weeks will be crucial in determining the willingness of the parties to sustain the ceasefire. It is thought that Hamas seeks to avoid another war at this time, however, the same was thought before the summer’s war as well. Should rocket fire intensify, both in terms of frequency or distance, Israel will come under greater domestic pressure to respond beyond the usual tit-for-tat. The key test will be Hamas’ perceived role in the attacks. As the most powerful faction in Gaza, conducting or tolerating attacks by smaller factions will surely increase the necessity for a stronger Israeli response. With Israel’s elections coming in March and Hamas stating it has the right to respond to perceived Israeli aggression, Palestinian militants may see an opportunity to influence its outcome.