Rocket Strikes Southern Israel, IDF Retaliates as Gaza Islamists Fight for Control

A rocket was fired at Israel by militants in the Gaza Strip late Saturday evening, triggering air-raid sirens throughout the southern city of Ashkelon and the Hof Ashkelon Regional Council. The rocket struck an open area and no injuries were immediately reported. Hours later, the IDF struck what it dubbed “terror infrastructure” in northern Gaza as retaliation.

“This is a moment of truth for the Israeli government,” said Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni after the initial rocket attack. “We aren’t talking any more about a mistake or one rocket, but the blatant breaking of the cease fire,” referencing the Egyptian-brokered agreement between Israel and Hamas that concluded last summer’s Operation Protective Edge. Saturday’s attack marks the seventh time militants in the Gaza Strip have launched rockets at Israel since the cease fire was signed last August.

The rockets were reportedly launched by a Salafist terrorist group affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has also claimed responsibility for the three rockets that hit southern Israel on Wednesday. The group said that Wednesday’s attacks were in retaliation for the killing of an ISIS supporter by Hamas earlier this week, and released a statement warning, “We are continuing with our jihad against the Jews, the enemies of God and no one will be able to deter us.” At the time, the IDF responded by targeting three militant training camps within the Strip, with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon saying that Israel regards Hamas as “the responsible party for what happens in Gaza,” and that “if it is necessary, we will strike with even greater force” to end rocket attacks on Israeli citizens.

Internal fighting has rocked the Gaza Strip as Hamas and members of rival Islamist groups, including ISIS-affiliated Salafists, battle for dominance. On May 8, a Salafist group fired a mortar at a Hamas base within the Strip after carrying out a series of bombings against Hamas officials; Hamas, in turn, demolished a mosque frequented by Salafist activists and conducted mass arrests.

These violent power struggles have also included the launch of multiple rockets against residents of southern Israel. On May 26, as many as five rockets were launched by the terror organization Palestinian Islamic Jihad, among them a mid-range Grad rocket. A month before, one of Hamas’ Islamist rivals fired two rockets at Israel during the country’s 67th Independence Day. It was the first such attack in 2015.

Israel also announced that it would be closing the Erez and Kerem Shalom border crossings into Gaza for security reasons. Up to this point, Israel has permitted the passage of materials necessary to facilitate reconstruction efforts in Gaza, with an estimated 24,061 truckloads of goods passing through the Keren Shalom border crossing between January and April. Reconstruction materials are routinely diverted by Hamas for the construction of tunnels that are used to smuggle weapons into Gaza and carry out attacks within Israel. Rocket attacks often trigger a temporary tightening of restrictions on imports to the Strip.

[Photo: Israel Defense Forces / Flickr ]