Analysts: Israel using rocket attacks from fringe groups in Gaza to target Hamas tunnel infrastructure

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Ali Tannany, 27, was celebrating his bachelor party with friends, relatives and neighbors in Jabalia Camp in Northern Gaza in August when Israeli missiles were launched into the Strip, shelling several arbitrary areas in the region. The attack was considered an immediate response to the launching of a missile by Palestinian resistance groups on August 21st against Sderot, located less than a mile east of Gaza. Ali and his guests were not shaken when the shelling started and continued their celebration. However, as the sound of bombs got louder and closer, people started leaving the party and Ali had to ask the rest of his guests to seek safety in their homes.

Israel has seemingly altered its reaction policy to resistance rockets; it now responds with immediate, massive seismic missiles. It did so again today, striking targets in Gaza in retaliation for a rocket fired at an Israeli community.

The recent assaults on Gaza have been the most severe since the end of the 2014 war on Gaza, which lasted 51 days, resulting in the death of 2,220 Palestinians, the injuring of more than 11,000, and the destruction or severe damaging of 18,000 buildings. At the end of that attack, Israel agreed to a ceasefire, in a joint effort with the Egyptian government, and its direct violence on the Strip was limited over the following two years.

But things are different now.

On August 21st, the Israeli air forces launched a series of intense air raids against the Gaza Strip, justifying the assault as a response to the launching of a Palestinian missile. The bombardment targeted agricultural lands and athletic training venues affiliated with Palestinian factions. According to Watan newspaper, more than 60 missiles were fired by Israeli warplanes over a short period of time against Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia in the north of Gaza, causing one young casualty with a slight injury, and severe trauma among children. Israeli newspapers (Yedioth Ahronoth and Haaretz) mentioned that these areas were targeted by 50 missiles, but the number was not confirmed by official Israeli sources.

A change in Israeli response

Analysts and observers agree that a change in Israel’s response policy is underway, though it is known that Hamas was not involved in the most recent attacks. A small Salafi Jehadist battalion claimed responsibility for launching those missiles, under a faction called the “Sheikh Omar Hadid Brigade.” Afekhay Aderey, the spokesman of the Israeli Army, said that these bombardments came as a reaction to the launching of a missile into Sderot, and that Hamas is considered responsible, because it is the official government of Gaza.

Hamas denied any involvement in the attack on Sderot. Samy Abu Zohry, the spokesman of the faction, said in a press release following the bombardment, “The escalation of violence comes in the context of continued Israeli aggression against the Palestinians, and the implementation of more systemic policies that further burden the Strip and the resistance.”

Omar Ja’ara, an expert on Israeli policy, believes that Israel, under the leadership of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, seeks to change the response policy against rocket-firing from the Gaza Strip. He explains that the most recent response was not a tactic of intimidation, but a military strategy to attain specific results in regard to the tunnel system, which remains Israel’s biggest worry.

In an exclusive interview with Mondoweiss, Ja’ara stated his position in the wake of these attacks. “We must not be an easy opponent. Israel affronts the resistance men with power and malice at the same time, knowing that a ground invasion cannot possibly destroy the existence of tunnels.” He also mentioned that Israel will make use of any coming lapses of resistance to immediately respond to Hamas military targets.

A planned military operation

Two weeks before the bombardment, Israeli drones were gathered in abundance at low altitudes in the Gaza sky, which concerned the population. But after the recent bombings in response to the Sderot attacks, the sky had fewer reconnaissance planes.

Yousef Al-Sharqawi, an expert on military affairs and retired general manager, said that the Israeli attacks in August were a planned operation by which Israel attained military goals. “After the withdrawal of engineering units on the Gaza border and the immediate halt of all prospective construction work on the tunnels, Israel took advantage of that to strike the resistance infrastructure in these areas, expecting to find tunnels that reach the Occupied Territories.”

Mainstream Israeli media said that the warplanes targeted a group of tunnels affiliated with the resistance on the borders, striking them with destructive seismic missiles. These outlets also mentioned that the warplanes launched a number of bombs towards targets in the north of Gaza.

Hamas: No losses in the battlefield

Abu Mosa’ab, the tunnel commander at Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades, said that the Israeli missiles in August did not cause losses. “What was destroyed is an observatory unit that consisted of expensive and advanced cameras that cost some thousands of dollars.”

Abu Mosa’ab also stressed that Gaza’s resistance groups, especially Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades, have a wide knowledge of Israel’s advanced aircraft. “We’re continuously developing the tunnel system in response to any changes in the field, as we do not want to be victims to one of Israel’s developed weapons,” he added.

The resistance recently altered the architecture of tunnels from flat concrete ceilings to arched ceilings, as research has found that flat ceilings are more vulnerable to Israeli strikes. A documentary film prepared by journalist Wael Al-Dahdouh, correspondent to Al-Jazeera channel, clearly demonstrated how these developed tunnels look.

However, Al-Sharqawy believes that even though the seismic missiles did not cause big losses and destruction to the tunnels, the tunnels are considered to be the most effective weapon in facing Israel and the strikes slowed down construction and development, which might affect them in the future.

Mohammad Meqdad, a police officer who works at the engineering of explosives unit in affiliation with the Ministry of Interior, said in a statement that Israel’s F15 warplanes only struck in impervious places. “The missiles used recently against Gaza resemble the MK 84 bomb, which weighs one ton and contains more than one explosive material, such as the aluminum powder which increases the temperatures and causes devastating splits in the soil.”

Hamas: Our weapons cannot be broken by Israel

In a short interview with Yehya Musa, Hamas leader, he also stated that Israel cannot hold the resistance weapons back with such attacks. “We know that tunnels are a major concern to the Israeli leaders, since they were used as a powerful weapon in the last aggression against Gaza. That’s why they are trying their best to destroy the tunnels we have.”

Musa continued to say that these immediate responses from Israel weaken resistance preparation, specifically Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades, however adding that “neither Israel nor any power in the world can demolish Gaza’s resistance, which is enhanced by the tunnels.”

No fight in sight

In terms of a coming military conflict, most analysts generally agree with the expert on Israeli policy, Omar Ja’ara, in his view that Israel is revealing a “deterrence” policy that will not lead to a new aggression against the Gaza Strip in the near future.

Mkhemar Abu Sa’da, lecturer at Al-Azhar University and political analyst, said, “Despite the strong Israeli offensive, the situation doesn’t precipitate a new confrontation in the near future.” In addition, Israel is discouraged from further attack by the current local and international situations in the region, including its agreement with Turkey.

Talal Abu Okal, political writer at Al-Ayyam newspaper, agrees with what Abu Sa’da said. “Israel will avoid getting into a fourth aggression, as it deems collecting information and striking strategic places is the best strategy for the time being.”

“Reckless” resistance weakens Gaza

Yousef Al-Sahrqawy said that random acts of resistance, such as launching missiles against Israeli towns without a strategy, could result in severe damage to tunnels from Israeli bombardment, which usually is tenfold the provocation. “Even if the tunnels survive the missile attacks, they would still slow down the process of digging through the tunnels as the workers would have to evacuate them before, during, and after the bombing, which is enough to weaken Gaza’s general resistance,” he said.