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Analysis

Perfect storm: Israel, Hamas again conveniently blame rocket fire on the weather

For the third time in two years, thunderstorms said to launch pre-armed projectiles at central Israel, providing Jerusalem and Gaza terror groups with an excuse to avoid escalation

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Lightning above buildings during a thunderstorm in Gaza City, on November 15, 2020. (Mahmud Hams / AFP)
Lightning above buildings during a thunderstorm in Gaza City, on November 15, 2020. (Mahmud Hams / AFP)

For the third time in just over two years, Israeli and Hamas officials identified a convenient cause for a rocket attack that threatened to upset the relative calm between the two sides: the weather.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, just after 2 a.m., two rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip toward central Israel, triggering sirens and the Iron Dome air defense system. The Iron Dome interceptor missiles failed to bring down the incoming projectiles, both of which appeared to land in unpopulated areas, where they caused neither injury nor damage.

The Israel Defense Forces responded with a seemingly perfunctory retaliation: strikes on an underground Hamas structure and several of the terror group’s military bases in the Strip.

The rocket attack came at a general period of heightened tensions between Israel and terrorist organizations in the Strip. The middle of November is rife with fraught anniversaries — on November 12, 2019, Israel killed Baha Abu al-Ata, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad senior commander; on November 11, 2018, an Israeli commando raid in the Gazan city of Khan Younis went awry, leading to a major firefight and the death of one Israeli officer, as well as several terrorists; and Israel and terror groups in the Strip fought a week-long battle on November 14-21, 2012, touched off by the IDF killing a top Hamas officer, Ahmed Jabari.

Palestinian members of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, during a patrol in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on April 27, 2020. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

At the same time, Israel and Hamas are engaged in ongoing talks — through the intermediaries of Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations, principally — to negotiate a long-term ceasefire, optimally one that addresses the issue of the two Israeli citizens and the remains of two IDF soldiers currently being held by Hamas in Gaza.

Though these efforts continue, they have until now reached the same basic impasse that all similar attempts in recent years have encountered: deep-seated, objectively justified concerns by Israel that whatever major concessions are offered to Hamas — the construction of an offshore port, work permits for Gaza Strip residents, unrestricted imports into the enclave — will be used for terrorist purposes, and Hamas’s resistance to giving up its military wing.

The predawn rocket attack on central Israel on Sunday threatened to blow up those talks and potentially lead to a major round of fighting.

Illustrative: Rockets are launched by Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip toward Israel, February 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

In the hours following the attack, defense officials in Israel and members of Hamas in the Strip began telling their respective media outlets that the two rockets fired toward central Israel were not a deliberate attack, but were triggered accidentally by the weather.

In Israel, the claim was that a lightning strike had apparently set off the rockets, which had been armed and pre-aimed at central Israel. In Gaza, Hamas officials indicated it was due to an electrical short caused by flooding.

The claims were met with a degree of ridicule by defense analysts and commentators. Palestinian media outlets similarly mocked the situation, with one publishing a political cartoon showing a lightning bolt pressing a launch button connected to a rocket.

It was not the first time that inclement weather was blamed for rocket attacks.

Similar explanations were offered in October 2018 when a rocket destroyed a home in the city of Beersheba and another landed off the coast of central Israel, and again in March 2019. when a rocket struck a home in central Israel, injuring seven people, including two babies, and causing massive damage to the building.

Though Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Benny Gantz, explicitly held Hamas responsible for the rocket fire, Israel, by blaming the launches on an act of God, would not have to retaliate as forcefully and Hamas, in turn, would not have to respond to the retaliation, allowing both sides to end the situation relatively painlessly.

This picture taken from Gaza City shows lightning flashing over buildings near the flare of a rocket launched by Palestinian terrorists during a thunderstorm on November 15, 2020. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

According to experts, in theory, a lightning bolt or electrical short could cause a rocket launch. After years of Israel bombing launchpads and killing the operatives who fire the rockets, terror groups began using timers, remote triggers and other means of setting off projectiles from afar. At the same time, proper safeguards and protective systems are not a priority in the beleaguered coastal enclave, meaning these extremely dangerous weapons could indeed be launched accidentally.

There was indeed a thunderstorm in the Gaza Strip at roughly the same time as the rocket fire on Sunday morning, thought the proximity of the lightning strikes to the launchpad was not immediately clear.

However, the clear motivation to resolve the matter quickly, as well as the Rube Goldberg-esque nature of the mechanism, led to dismissal of that explanation by some analysts, who assessed the rockets were fired deliberately, taking advantage of the fact that neither side was particularly interested in a fresh round of fighting to embarrass the Israeli military and strike fear in the heart of Israeli citizens.

In any case, both Israel and Hamas consider the exchange to be over — until the next storm.

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