The first Israeli air strike in the Gaza Strip since last summer’s war against Hamas has raised concerns about a possible slide back toward conflict between Israel and Islamist militants in the coastal enclave.
The strike early Saturday after a rocket was fired into Israel was called “a serious escalation” by Hamas, and Israeli commentators cautioned that mounting frustration in Gaza over continuing border closures and lack of progress in post-war reconstruction could fuel a return to violence.
Activists in Israeli communities near the Gaza border are urging the government to make a diplomatic push for a long-term truce that would avert another round of conflict. Egyptian-mediated talks on such a truce have been stalled for weeks, with no apparent effort to renew them.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Sunday that the air strike had targeted a cement factory involved in construction of fortified tunnels used by Gaza militants. He said that the rocket that landed in a field on Friday was not fired by Hamas, but by a rogue jihadist group challenging the ceasefire that ended the 50-day war in August.
It was the third rocket to hit Israel since the fighting ended, but the first that triggered an Israeli response.
Yaalon said Israel had received indirect messages from Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, that it had arrested those involved in the rocket firing, suggesting that it did not seek further escalation.
“Hamas is responsible and we demand that it make sure that not a single rocket is fired from the Gaza Strip,” Yaalon said.
He added that despite the isolated fire by rogue elements, “the fact is that Hamas is deterred” in the aftermath of the Israeli campaign, which left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead and whole Gaza neighborhoods in ruins.
Still, the lack of progress in efforts to reach a long-term truce has Israelis living on the Gaza border worried. A group of them traveled to Tel Aviv and demonstrated on Saturday night outside the defense ministry, holding banners that said: “A real solution is a political arrangement.”
Four months after the war, “the government of Israel has not made any move to take the diplomatic initiative and promote an arrangement in Gaza, and in fact nothing has changed,” Anat Hefetz, an activist from Kibbutz Nirim, told Israel Radio. “The approach of the decision-makers is to continue with a low-intensity conflict here, to maintain a kind of status quo of managing the conflict without trying to fundamentally change it.”
Hamas demanded during the war that Israel and Egypt lift a blockade on Gaza, but the borders have remained largely sealed, and only a fraction of needed building materials and reconstruction aid pledged by international donors has reached the territory.
With no prospects for a broader truce agreement that might change conditions in Gaza, the simmering discontent means there is fertile ground for a renewed outburst of hostilities, said Amos Harel, military correspondent for the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
“Four months after the war,” Harel wrote in an article published Sunday, “Gaza remains a pressure cooker at the boiling point.”