In violation of a two-year ceasefire that had mostly been enforced, Hamas launched (and took credit for) dozens of mortars from Gaza into southern Israel Saturday morning, injuring two civilians. Another rocket from Gaza—this one not like the mortars fired Saturday, and not yet claimed by any group—landed in the coastal Israeli town of Ashkelon Sunday. Israel responded Saturday with tanks and helicopters, reportedly injuring five and killing two. Israel also moved to lodge a formal complaint with the United Nations, which has lately become a battleground for Palestinian statehood.
The New York Times accurately described the attack as “unusually intense,” and Hamas’s taking credit for it as “uncommon.” Hamas asserted it was a response to an Israeli airstrike Wednesday that killed two of its members. The technical term for this explanation is bullshit: Israel struck Wednesday in response to a rocket fired earlier; Hamas knows that whenever it fires into Israel, Israel fires back. So what prompted it?
The best guess is that Hamas is trying to distract Gaza Palestinians from the current grassroots campaign for unity between Hamas and Fatah, the less extreme Palestinian group that rules the West Bank. Over the past week, in the Palestinian territories’ version of the upheavals that have gripped most of the Arab world, people in both Gaza and the West Bank have taken to the streets to demand that the rivals (indeed, foes—they fought in armed conflict a few years ago) unify for the larger cause of Palestinian nationalism. In turn, both groups, and especially Hamas, have cracked down on these protests.
“Is there any other way to interpret Hamas’ claim of responsibility than an attempt to divert attention from #Mar15?” tweeted George Hale, the English editor of the West Bank-based Ma’an News Agency, referring to the pro-unification movement. Hamas, this theory goes, is trying to change the subject from its conflict with Fatah by picking a fight with Israel in order to create a rally ‘round the flag effect. Which would be solely its own business, if that tactic did not involve the reckless, provocative launching of dozens of notoriously inaccurate weapons at civilian areas. The attack, in other words, was unusual and uncommon, but, sadly, it was not out of charater.