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An Islamic Jihad militant stands guard near a military base that was targeted in an Israeli air strike in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip March 13, 2014.IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/Reuters

Rockets had been flying fast and furious between Gaza and Israel this week in the worst exchange of fire since the eight-day conflict in November 2012 that left 177 Gazans and six Israelis dead.

Three Palestinian militants from Islamic Jihad were killed and there no Israeli casualties today before an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire was agreed upon.

At times like this it's sometimes hard to tell the tit from tat, though it's important to do so.

Here is a rundown:

  • On Thursday, Israeli forces say they attacked seven “terror sites” in southern Gaza in response to five rockets fired at Israel earlier in the day. The Popular Resistance Committees, a Palestinian militia based in Gaza, says it fired the rockets – only two of which actually reached Israel – in response to heavy Israeli bombardment of Gaza overnight.
  • On Wednesday, Israel said it carried out 29 aerial attacks on targets inside Gaza in response to an enormous flurry of rockets fired on Israel during the day.
  • Islamic Jihad, another Palestinian resistance group, said it launched the missiles – some 70 of them, although only 41 reached Israel – in an operation it dubbed “Breaking the Silence” because of an Israeli attack Tuesday that killed three Islamic Jihad fighters in the Gaza city of Khan Younis.
  • Israel acknowledged that attack, saying it came in response to Islamic Jihad firing mortars on Israeli soldiers earlier in the day.
  • Islamic Jihad explained that it carried out the mortar attack because Israeli soldiers had crossed the fence and entered the Gaza Strip.

Now we're getting to the nub of the issue.

Israeli troops did cross into Gaza, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz says, quoting officials. But this, the paper said, is a normal activity, conducted from time to time, in order to carry out some "engineering" near the fence.

Such activity, it explains, is covered in the terms of the November, 2012, ceasefire negotiated by Egypt and agreed to by both Hamas and Israel. Hamas has observed the terms and allowed such Israeli activity on the Gaza side of the fence without incident, Israelis say.

Islamic Jihad, however, has used the Israeli act as justification for firing on Israeli forces.

Why would they do this?

It is possible that Islamic Jihad, perhaps encouraged by its sponsor Iran, was bent on triggering a conflict in complete disregard for its men, the ceasefire and the Hamas authorities. The organization was said to be the intended recipient of a shipment of sophisticated missiles bound for Gaza from Syria and Iran that was intercepted several days ago by Israeli naval vessels.

Such a loss might have been viewed as a reason for attacking Israeli targets, to show the defiance of the group.

It also is possible that the Islamic Jihad fighters manning the mortars Tuesday morning didn't get the memo. The organization itself might not have known that Israeli troops crossing the fence was to be tolerated.

It may seem far-fetched, but it is conceivable that it was Hamas's way of teaching Islamic Jihad a lesson for its role in trying to import weapons from Iran. The story of the Israeli high-seas weapons interception had made Israel look good and Hamas, the putative rulers of Gaza, look very bad.

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday, Hamas will be held responsible for any terrorist activity emanating from the Gaza Strip.

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