The Palestinian militant group Hamas which governs the Gaza Strip has reportedly initiated a crackdown on Salafist fighters within its ranks who are responsible for instances of unauthorized rocket fire into Israel, which has been sporadic in the last two weeks since President Trump's contentious recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital on December 6th.
The Times of Israel cites Hamas media statements as well as unnamed intelligence sources to report that the group has arrested a growing number of Islamist militants in recent days amidst the crackdown and further that some among them were likely tortured in an effort to clamp down on the attacks, which have invited devastating air and tank counter assaults by Israeli forces on Hamas locations.
"According to Hamas, among those arrested were operatives responsible for the recent rocket launches. It’s likely that some of these men were tortured by Hamas’ security people," the report states. Hamas is further signaling to Egyptian intelligence and other regional Arab governments that it wishes to avoid escalation with Israel according to the report.
Hamas militants. Image source: AFP/File
Since protests began across the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem earlier this month which quickly escalated into outbursts of violence, Hamas affiliated factions have launched almost 30 rockets - half of which have entered Israel (others falling short within Gaza territory), with at least two hitting populated areas within southern Israel. Many of the rockets have been successfully intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system, however a number have made it through Israeli defenses.
Meanwhile, Israeli media now tallies about 40 Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) strikes on Hamas positions over the past two weeks. Thus far no Israelis have died while at least eight Palestinians have been killed (including two militants who reportedly died in an accidental blast while transporting explosives). The most recent rocket attacks from Gaza were Sunday night, for which the IDF retaliated on what the Israeli military described as a Hamas training compound in the northern Gaza Strip.
The IDF has repeatedly warned that it would hold Hamas directly responsible for all "hostile activity" and threats coming from Gaza - though Israeli airstrikes on the densely populated Gaza Strip have been notorious for causing mass civilian casualties among the Palestinian population, who often have nowhere to flee outside the confines of the relatively small strip of land that comprises Gaza territory.
But it appears that the political leadership on both sides wishes to avoid a scenario which leads to a repeat of Operation Protective Edge or other similar IDF incursions into Gaza before it. During Operation Protective Edge the United Nations reported that at least 2,104 Palestinians died, which included 1,462 civilians, of whom 495 were children and 253 women. The 2014 Israeli Army incursion into Gaza lasted seven weeks, and 66 Israeli soldiers died during the operation, as well as seven civilians killed in Israel due to rocket fire from Gaza.
Past major military conflicts between Israel and Hamas have started precisely through the kind of gradual tit-for-tat strikes and counter-strikes we are seeing now. However, according to Israeli media reports, intelligence assessments see Hamas' declarations that it will prevent rogue or unaccounted for rocket attacks on Israel as legitimate.
According to the Times of Israel:
The Israeli intelligence community is sticking to the assessment that Hamas doesn’t seek a conflict with Israel that would deteriorate into a broader war. Still, the fact that Hamas hasn’t stopped the periodic fire for nearly two weeks raises the question of whether the launches stem from Hamas’ inability to enforce quiet or from its security forces’ lack of motivation to do so.
Should reporting of the Hamas internal crackdown be legitimate, there's still the question of whether broader Palestinian anger will tolerate the potential "moderation" of Hamas leadership, especially as tensions are set to intensify this week with Vice President Mike Pence's visit to Israel so soon after Trump's bombshell declaration on the status of Jerusalem. Pence is expected to land in Jerusalem Wednesday, and the trip will include a contested visit to the Western Wall, which administration officials have promised will remain under the sovereignty of the Israeli state in any future agreement.
The trip will also come after Monday's UN vote, which pitted the United States against all other members of the UN Security Council in a 14 to 1 decision with the US as the lone veto blocking a resolution calling for the withdrawal of President Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. Nikki Haley was reportedly furious over the resolution, calling it an "insult" and saying the US won’t be told where it can put its embassy.
And within Isreal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing harsh criticism from opposition Labor party politicians for perceived inaction against Gaza's militants as well as the accusation that the country's "weak" leadership has lost the advantage of "deterrence".