Islamic Jihad was behind Friday’s mortar barrage, IDF assesses

Israeli army finds Hamas has been losing its ability to prevent other terrorist groups in Gaza from launching attacks

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Israelis take cover during a mortar attack siren warning at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Israel and Gaza border, Israel, December 29, 2017. Israelis had gathered there to mark the birthday of Oron Shaul, who was killed during the last war in Gaza; Hamas holds his remains. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
Israelis take cover during a mortar attack siren warning at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Israel and Gaza border, Israel, December 29, 2017. Israelis had gathered there to mark the birthday of Oron Shaul, who was killed during the last war in Gaza; Hamas holds his remains. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Mortar shells fired at Israel from Gaza on Friday appear to be the same Iran-made variety used in a November 30 barrage fired by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, indicating the terrorist group was responsible for both attacks, The Times of Israel has learned.

According to army assessments, those recent attacks show that Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, has apparently lost its ability to prevent other terrorist groups from carrying out attacks from the coastal enclave.

Israel’s retaliation policy in recent years has mostly been to strike Hamas in response to attacks carried out from Gaza, the idea being that the group, which rules the territory, is ultimately responsible for any attack emanating from it. The army believed that such strikes would force Hamas to rein in more radical groups.

Members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group attend the funeral of fellow terrorists killed in an Israeli operation to blow up a tunnel stretching from the Gaza Strip into Israel in central Gaza, on October 31, 2017. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

But in light of Hamas’s apparent inability to do so, the army may reconsider that policy and potentially go after those organizations itself.

The Iran-backed Islamic Jihad has vowed to avenge the deaths of 12 of its operatives, including two senior officers, who were killed when the Israel Defense Forces blew up a cross-border attack tunnel dug by the group on October 30. Two Hamas members were also killed in the blast.

One month after the tunnel was destroyed, Islamic Jihad launched a dozen mortar shells at an IDF position northeast of the Gaza Strip, causing no injuries but some damage to equipment.

Then, on Friday, three mortar shells — initially incorrectly identified as rockets — were lobbed at the Sha’ar Hanegev and Sdot Negev regions of southern Israel. The attack came during a ceremony marking what would have been the 24th birthday of Oron Shaul, an IDF soldier who was killed in 2014 and whose remains are held by Hamas.

The damage cause by a mortar shell fired from the Gaza Strip that landed at the entrance to a building in the Shaar Hanegev region, December 29, 2017. (Israel Police)

Two of the shells were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system; the third struck an Israeli community in Sha’ar Hanegev, causing light damage to a building.

The military censor did not allow the exact location of the strike to be published, as it could assist terrorist groups in fine-tuning their targeting for future attacks.

Shortly after the barrage, the Israel Defense Forces retaliated by attacking two Hamas positions with tank shells and an airstrike.

Following an investigation, the IDF determined that the same variety of mass-produced Iranian mortar shells — a 120mm variety manufactured in 2008 — was used in both attacks. The army therefore believes that the Islamic Jihad was also behind Friday’s attack.

The probe also reinforced an initial assessment that the attack was specifically aimed to coincide with the ceremony for Shaul, in light of its irregular timing — most attacks happen at night — and the fact that the shells were aimed toward the general location of the ceremony.

A Palestinian wave his national flag while passing by a billboard bearing a portrait of slain Israeli soldier Oron Shaul, at the main road in Gaza City, Friday, Dec. 29, 2017. The Arabic reads “As long as our heroes do not see freedom and light … This prisoner will never see freedom”. Oron Shaul was killed during the last war in Gaza and Hamas is holding his remains. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

On Tuesday, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot warned that as the military destroys more attack tunnels entering Israel from the Gaza Strip — as it plans to do in the coming months — there will be an increased chance of retaliation by terrorist groups.

“We’ve destroyed many tunnels and we will continue to destroy them, resulting in the deaths of terrorists, something that has encouraged terrorist groups, especially [Salafist] ones, to carry out attacks,” he said.

The army chief said the military was continuing with its strategies of striking only terrorist positions in response to rocket fire and dismissed calls for the use of “maximum force” as “irresponsible.”

A police officer inspects a rocket that was fired at the Eshkol region of southern Israel by terrorists in the Gaza Strip on January 1, 2018. (Israel Police)

On Monday night, terrorists in the Gaza Strip launched a rocket that hit an open field in the Eshkol region, Israeli officials said. There were no reports of injuries or damage.

December saw two weeks of near-daily rocket launches, the largest incidence of such attacks from the Strip since the 2014 Israel-Hamas war.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said the rockets appeared to be the “price” Israel had to pay for US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on December 6.

According to Israeli assessments, the rockets are not being launched by Hamas, but by other terrorist groups in the Strip. However, analysts have noted that Hamas has been either unwilling or unable to clamp down on the groups, as it has in the past.

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