Rockets from the Gaza Strip were again fired at southern Israel this week, but Israelis responded in a remarkably restrained manner.
After three rockets were launched Tuesday in the general direction of the town of Sderot, Israeli forces replied with two missiles in early hours Wednesday morning into an open field in northern Gaza. No one was injured by either side's weapons.
Indeed, it would seem that Israel's action – firing into an uninhabited area when no one was likely to be present – was not intended to harm anyone. Rather, Israel may be testing the resolve of Khaled Meshaal, who was just re-elected as leader of Hamas, the militant Islamic group that rules Gaza, and whom many regard as a moderate.
Israel "decided to attack overnight in order to signal to Hamas that we will not suffer any strike on the south," said Brigadier-General Yoav Mordechai, the chief military spokesman, speaking on Army Radio.
It was the assessment of the Israeli military that "Hamas has no interest in seeing the situation deteriorate," he said. "Our goal is to maintain the quiet" that has mostly prevailed between Israel and Gaza for the past four months.
The Israelis also acknowledged that the three Palestinian rockets launched in the direction of Israel Tuesday and the two others that were fired Wednesday were not the work of Hamas.
For one thing, they were small and crude – two of them landed inside Gaza, not coming near their target. That also was the case when four rockets were fired at Sderot two weeks ago as U.S. President Barack Obama visited Israel. Two of those rockets never made it out of Gaza either.
The attempts are believed to have been the work of an upstart global jihadist group, such as the Mujahadeen Shura Council, that refuses to recognize Hamas's authority and would like to trigger another conflict such as the eight-day battle between Israel and Hamas that raged in November. About 160 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed in that deadly exchange of rockets and bombs.
Israel also did not retaliate for the rockets fired at the time of the Obama visit nor for a solitary rocket fired on Ashkelon in February. There was no damage and no casualties in those attacks, the only violations of a truce agreed on in November.
This week's attacks followed the death of a retired Palestinian general serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison. Maysara Abu Hamdiya, 64, died of throat cancer after being transferred to a Beersheva hospital last week. Gen. Hamdiya's family and lawyers had appealed for him to be released months ago when it became clear his condition was terminal. The appeal was being processed at the time of his death, a prison authority spokeswoman said.
Palestinians, including Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, condemned Israel for dragging its feet before considering the humanitarian appeal. Protests erupted in several parts of the West Bank and nearly all 4,600 Palestinians in Israeli prisons refused their breakfast Wednesday morning.
Gen. Hamdiya was convicted of authorizing a suicide attack on a Jerusalem café in 2002. The bomb failed to detonate and there were no casualties.
Israel's restraint may reflect a certain respect for Mr. Meshaal, who was somewhat unexpectedly re-elected as the political leader of Hamas in a secret vote of the group's leadership council.
Mr. Meshaal was first chosen to lead the organization in 2004 after Israel's assassination of his two predecessors, and 61/2years after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had ordered Mr. Meshaal's assassination. (The attempt was carried out by Mossad agents using Canadian passports.)
Mr. Meshaal had taken the unusual step of announcing last year he would not seek the office again. However, as one senior member of Hamas explained, "This isn't a job you can resign from. If the council wants you, you can't say no."
Mr. Meshaal, who was born in the West Bank and is not a refugee, is viewed as a moderate, willing to live in peace beside Israel. He is a disappointment to more radical Hamas elements in Gaza.
The council was believed to have been pressured in making its choice by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the parent body to Hamas. Mr. Meshaal is known to be favoured by Qatar, where the Hamas leader now lives, and Egypt's struggling Muslim Brotherhood regime is very much in need of support from the wealthy Gulf state.