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Jokes aside, rockets fired at Tel Aviv are no laughing matter

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PAULA SLIER

The city is congested, and Israelis wondered out loud how it was possible that although they could never find a parking spot, Hamas had been able to locate an open area for one of its rockets to land?

Others jokingly appealed to the media to stop reporting that a second missile had exploded in a field, because in no time building contractors would be all over the site.

The municipality of Sderot, an Israeli city less than a mile from Gaza that is constantly under rocket fire, mocked Tel Aviv residents on its official Facebook page. “A little bit of noise and they go crazy,” it wrote, offering Tel Aviv residents the chance to visit shelters in Sderot for “a VIP experience”.

This much is true. The sometimes daily rockets that rain down on Sderot are seldom met with the same kind of heavy-handed retaliation and urgent attention that greeted the ones reaching Tel Aviv last week.

But the biggest joke of all is that as the projectiles were being launched, Hamas’ political leadership was meeting with an Egyptian security delegation to discuss a possible long-term truce with Israel. Sadly, this was not a joke but reality.

Naturally, the Egyptians were furious and soon left the strip, even though Hamas insisted it had not activated the missiles. This, despite the fact that they were fired from a Hamas installation.

Still, it’s unlikely that another militant group in Gaza could have fired them. After Hamas, the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad is the second largest movement in the coastal enclave, and its leaders vehemently denied responsibility. There are smaller Gaza factions inspired by the Islamic State who also sometimes fire rockets at Israel, but it seems doubtful that they possess projectiles capable of reaching as far as Tel Aviv. Regardless, Israel has always maintained it holds Hamas responsible for what goes on in Gaza.

So, was Hamas’ denial a lie? It does seem ludicrous for the group to suggest that the fired missiles were a mistake. How does one explain that? Could someone just have happened to be leaning against a projectile and triggered it? Or, as some Palestinian sources allege, a new recruit who had not been properly trained accidentally launched them? Could the group’s political wing have no control over its military one? It all seems laughable.

As if that’s not odd enough, on Friday morning the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) supported Hamas’ claim that the rockets were fired in error, raising more than a few eyebrows.

Significantly, the army made this statement after having already attacked more than 100 Hamas targets across Gaza overnight in retaliation. The IDF admitted they had been caught off guard by the initial incident. Although the rockets caused no damage or injuries, it was the first time the city of Tel Aviv had been targeted since the last war between Israel and Hamas in 2014.

The sudden flare-up comes at a sensitive time for both sides. And it is this, more than anything, that might offer insight into the official reactions.

Israeli elections are less than a month away, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is locked in a tight fight for re-election. The last thing he can afford is criticism that he is soft against Hamas, which is why he was quick to convene a security meeting and declare that he viewed the incident with the “utmost gravity”. He ordered the military to respond.

Having said that, it’s the old dilemma for the premier. He doesn’t want to enter Gaza – and certainly not now – but he doesn’t want his political opponents using the incident against him either.

As bizarre as it sounds, the army is sticking to its guns. It insists the attack was a mistake, and this in turn serves Netanyahu well. As it does Hamas. Knowing Israel would retaliate after the Tel Aviv-bound rockets, it ordered all its men to abandon their bases and offices immediately.

Aside from nine more rockets it subsequently fired into Israel – they received little attention because they fell near southern Israeli border communities and no one was injured – Hamas did not initiate a major reaction to the Israeli strikes, and hence staved off an escalation in tensions.

The Hamas Interior Ministry went so far as to say the initial rockets were “against the national consensus” and promised to take action against the perpetrators. Just as significantly, for the first time in almost a year, it cancelled weekly Friday demonstrations near the Israeli border.

All of this happened as the group faced rare public criticism from Gaza residents, who hold it responsible for their worsening economy and harsh living conditions. In a rare public show of dissent, demonstrators took to the streets at several locations across the strip in the hours before the Tel Aviv rockets were launched.

Burning tires and blocking roads, the protests continued for three days and were met with brutal repression, including live fire from the Hamas security forces. If you missed seeing the pictures, it’s because Hamas forbade video from being taken. Seventeen Palestinian reporters were arrested, several of whom were badly beaten.

Hamas clearly understands that the protests are a warning sign that its days could be numbered. Is it not plausible then, as many observers are suggesting, that it used the rockets – even though it denies this – to detract attention away from growing internal dissent?

Hamas knows Gaza residents have little desire for another war with Israel, so initiating one won’t help its popularity. But firing rockets at Israel might. As could the shooting of three Israelis in the West Bank last Sunday, two of whom, at the time of writing, had died. The third is in a critical condition. Hamas praised the murders and handed out sweets in celebration.

Ironically, at any other time, such discontent towards Hamas among Gazans would be good news for Israel and Netanyahu. But not on election eve. The last thing the prime minister needs now is a war on his southern border – something that, for a few hours last Thursday, looked very likely.

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