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HAIFA, Israel – A frightening wave of rocket attacks raining down on Israel from terrorists in Gaza has not only broken a yearlong period of relative quiet on the border, it has put Hamas at odds with both Israel and an even more militant terror group within the territory.
The 70 indiscriminate Qassam and Grad missile attacks are already 11 more than were mounted in all of 2013, and have prompted dozens of counter-attacks by Israel Defense Forces. But officials believe Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and not Hamas, the terrorist group that governs the territory, is behind the attacks. Hamas' popularity in the strip is in freefall, as the economy struggles and other groups such as Islamic Jihad vie for public support.
“I think [this week’s barrage] is a retaliatory attack by the PIJ who wish to break the status quo,” Yoram Shweizer, senior research fellow at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) told FoxNews.com. “They wanted to retaliate and avenge the death of their own people. In the initial stages I don’t think that Hamas wanted to block them in such a situation, but now I think that Hamas will try at least to calm the situation."
Earlier in the week, the Israel Defense Forces killed three suspected Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives who they said fired a mortar across the border at an Israeli army position. In Israel, the attacks forced hundreds of thousands of Israelis to spend much of the two days in or within 15 seconds of bomb shelters, as the rocket attacks moved deep into Israeli territory and included the cities of Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Yavne.
The escalation in cross-border fire reflects a power struggle going on in Gaza between the governing Hamas terror organization and other groups, such as the PIJ and other miltias associated with Al Qaeda. Hamas is on the verge of bankruptcy, sources said. The finances of the terrorist state have been decimated since the change of power in Egypt last year that saw General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi take power from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi.
Sisi, still frozen out by the U.S administration, which supported Morsi, believes radical Islam is as big a threat to Egypt as it is to neighboring Israel. He has clamped down hard on jihadists in the lawless Sinai Peninsula, closed the Rafah Crossing between Gaza and Egypt and turned on Hamas, reportedly destroying more than 1,300 smuggling tunnels between the Strip and Sinai. This has caused a collapse in Gaza’s black market economy, an economy heavily taxed by the Hamas administration and for years the mainstay of its finances.
The wages of most government employees haven’t been paid for months, there are shortages of fuel, electricity, building materials, and some basic foodstuffs, all prompting growing disquiet on the Gazan street. The only continuous stream of goods into Gaza of late have been via the border crossings with Israel, but this week’s sudden upsurge in rocket fire out of Gaza has forced Israel to close the crossings to all but humanitarian traffic.
Despite their day-to-day struggle, many Gazans, seeing no improvement in their lives after seven years of oppressive Hamas rule, appear to be offering growing support to the even more radical Palestinian Islamic Jihad, backed by Iran. The PIJ has been keen to try and draw Israel into a fight even though a full-scale conflict would likely bring further hardship and loss of life to Gaza.
It has been an open secret for some time that there have been back channel communications between Israel and Hamas that have, thus far, helped calm the situation when violence has flared. Despite calls earlier this week by Israel’s hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to re-occupy Gaza – a territory Israel unilaterally left in 2005 in the hope of seeing a peaceful regime on its border – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately ruled out sending the army back into the heavily populated and hugely dangerous enclave, but warned, “We harm those who try to harm us and respond fiercely to any attack.”
Hamas is arguably teetering on the brink, but with no prospect of a moderate regime in the enclave ironically it is Israel that wishes them to stay in power, seeing them as the lesser of a number of evils on its doorstep.
“Israel prefers to maintain the status quo rather than getting into a fight in Gaza [but] Hamas is in dire straits”, Yoram Shweizer concluded. “There is a lot of pressure in Gaza itself to break the status quo and launch rockets towards Israel.”
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who can be followed on twitter @ paul_alster and at www.paulalster.com