With reprisal campaign, Israel looks to put ‘strategic’ dent in Hamas
Unlike tit-for-tat exchanges of past, Israeli jets targeting Gaza positions following rocket attack on Sderot Wednesday hit sites key to terror organization
Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.
A major Israeli bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip Wednesday targeted strategic Hamas positions seen as important to the group’s operations, a military official said, while maintaining that Israel would continue to strike the ruling terror group in response to rocket attacks carried out by other groups in the Palestinian enclave.
The strikes, which comprised some two dozen bombings according to some reports, came after a missile fired from Gaza slammed into a street in the Israeli town of Sderot, causing damage and sending three people to the hospital to be treated for anxiety. There were no reports of Palestinian casualties in the Israeli raids.
A fringe Salafist group took responsibility for the rocket attack.
The army would not specify on record which Hamas sites were hit in the retaliatory strikes. In a statement, the Israel Defense Forces would only say its aircraft targeted “a number of terror installations belonging to the Hamas terror group.”
A military official, speaking to the Times of Israel on condition of anonymity Thursday, said the strikes targeted “key Hamas strategic infrastructure,” without giving details.
The statement marked a departure from past Israeli reprisal attacks, which often took a tit-for-tat approach, targeting low-level Hamas sites.
According to Palestinian media, the Israeli jets hit the al-Tufah and Shejaiya neighborhoods of Gaza City in the northern Strip and the city of Khan Younis in southern Gaza.
The bombardment included several strikes on open fields and Hamas training facilities, according to reports from within Gaza.
The airstrikes on Wednesday evening were the second Israeli response to the rocket attack on Sderot. The first came approximately an hour after the rocket struck, when an Israeli tank on the Gaza border fired shells at a Hamas site in the northern Strip, the army said.
The IAF attack approximately three hours later was far more forceful. According to Palestinian media, some 25 bombs were dropped during the Israeli Air Force attack; however, the IDF would not confirm those figures.
Wednesday’s bombing runs were essentially a repeat performance of an August aerial bombardment, during which the Israeli Air Force carried out approximately 50 bombing runs on a handful of targets in the Gaza Strip.
As Israel’s operating method has been to carry out airstrikes only in response to rocket fire from Gaza, Wednesday’s attack — as well as August’s — allowed Israel to take out infrastructure it otherwise would not have.
“We took advantage of an opportunity to both send a message and to test some of our capabilities,” a senior officer from the IDF Southern Command said about the August bombing runs last month, being deliberately vague about what those capabilities were.
The senior officer was speaking specifically about the August incident, but the same holds true for Wednesday’s bombardments, a military official said.
Though an Islamic State-affiliated Salafist group, Ahfad al-Sahaba-Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis, took responsibility for the rocket fire on Wednesday, the alleged two dozen bombs were dropped on Hamas sites.
The army’s stance has been to hold Hamas — the Strip’s rulers — responsible for any rocket fire coming out of Gaza, regardless of the source, and that does not appear to be changing, according to the military official.
The army holds a similar policy vis-á-vis spillover fire from Syria, striking Assad army positions in response to any mortar or rocket that lands in Israel.
However, during the latest incident in Syria, the IDF noted that while it holds Assad’s regime responsible, it “will not hesitate to act against any opposition forces in Syria.”
The same does not seem to be true for Gaza, where Israel will continue to solely target Hamas for any rocket fire emanating from the Strip, the military official said
“Hamas is responsible for what goes on in Gaza. The response is calculated and sends a clear message to Hamas that they have a lot to lose,” he said.
By striking Hamas in response to any fire, Israel hopes to force the terrorist group to act as sheriff in Gaza, preventing the more extreme groups within the Strip from carrying out rocket attacks against the Jewish state.
“If you’re in charge, you’re in charge. That’s the [army’s] policy,” the official added.
The past two rocket attacks that struck Sderot — Wednesday’s and one in August — were both apparently carried out by the same Salafist group, whose members have already been arrested by Hamas.
The group claimed in a statement that the rocket attack against Israel was in response to Hamas detaining five of its members.
While Israel says Hamas cooperates with groups linked to the Islamic State in Gaza, Hamas has also reportedly sought to crack down on smaller Salafist groups in the Strip they may challenge its hold on power.
These groups have been known to fire rockets at Israel as a way of drawing the IDF’s far superior firepower against Hamas.
Wednesday’s rocket, which was fired from the Gaza Strip, struck a street in the Israeli city of Sderot — a few miles from Beit Hanoun — just before 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, police said.
IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said in a statement that the rocket was the “direct result of Hamas’ terror agenda in the Gaza Strip that encourages deliberate attacks against Israeli civilians.”
Besides sending three people to the hospital suffering from anxiety attacks, the projectile caused damage to the street where it landed, as well as several nearby cars and homes.
Police sappers were called to the scene, and the area was closed off to pedestrians and traffic, police said.