The IDF’s automatic air strikes Saturday night, June 6, against Hamas training camps evacuated in advance – following the third rocket attack from the Gaza Strip in two weeks – indicated that Israel had run out of answers for the new escalation less than a year after last summer’s war. This time, after a rocket struck Ashkelon, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon also shut the Kerem Shalom and Erez border crossings, except for “humanitarian traffic” and only temporarily “until the security situation settled down.”
But Israeli officials have carefully avoided fingering “Islamic State” or “Al Qaeda” as responsible for the rocket fire – referring only to “rogue organizations locked in a power struggle with the ruling Hamas." Israel continues to name Hamas as the only destination for reprisals. Indeed, Amos Gilead, politicy coordinator at the Defense Ministry, stated in the Meet the Press radio broadcast Saturday: “Our deterrence is powerfully effective. Hamas understands this and is doing everything it can to prevent the [rocket] fire.”
Three hours later, red alert sirens sounded across Ashkelon and the Lachish districts, warning civilians to run for shelter to avoid casualties.
Israel has vowed zero tolerance and a swift response to any repetition of the rocket raids that threatens to keep a large populace in shelters for yet another summer. But the truth is that Hamas has no answer for ISIS’s descent on the Gaza Strip, any more than the rest of the Middle East to the Islamists' inroads on Syria, Iraq and Egypt.
Months ago, the “Omar Haddad Platoons”, which claimed the last three rockets attacks, and other extremist Salafi groups operating in the Gaza Strip, hooked up with neighboring Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as the “Sinai Province of the Islamic State.”
This organization is now run by ISIS officers smuggled through Jordan into Egyptian Sinai and across the Rafah border into the Palestinian Gaza Strip.
The Islamic State is not the only terrorist group to have infiltrated its officers to Gaza. The Iranian-backed Shiite Hizballah followed a similar route from Lebanon.
DEBKfiile’s military and intelligence sources report that Hizballah officers in the Gaza Strip have established a new pattern in Yemen and Iraq – and now in the Gaza Strip, where it has formed a new Palestinian militia of dissident Islamic Jihad factions at odds with the group’s leadership which has fallen out with its sponsors in Tehran.
It was this new militia which fired the long-range Grad missiles at Gan Yavne on May 27, while the Islamic State’s “Omar Haddad” followers were responsible for the June 3 attack on Netivot and the rocket strike against Ashkelon Saturday. None caused casualties or damage.
However, the tiny Gaza Strip has acquired the dubious distinction of being the only patch of land in the Middle East where the Sunni ISIS and the Shiite Hizballah terrorists operate simultaneously though separately against the same two declared foes: Hamas and Israel.
This situation is no less volatile than it is in Iraq, Syria or Lebanon given these groups’ innate tendency to constantly change sides and escalate their violence. It cries out for both Israel and Egypt to step in without further delay.
Ashkelon mayor Itamar Shimoni said Saturday that Israel's government was facing "the moment of truth." Residents, he warned, would not be "held hostage" to internal Palestinian struggles and urged the government to curb the trickle of rocket fire before the situation deteriorated.
However, the situation facing Israel’s military planners today is not the same as it was last summer. The terror infrastructure Hamas built over many years in Sinai has been taken over by ISIS, and its control of the Gaza Strip is slipping, as yet more radical and violent organizations eat away at its authority and seize control of the rocket offensive against Israel.
Bombing empty Hamas training centers is more than ever an exercise in futility. A repetition of summer’s campaign against Hamas would not serve any useful purpose: ISIS and Hizballah are a threat of a different order and will not be affected by this plan of operation.
Binyamin Netanyahu at the head of a new government, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and the new Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gady Eisenkott are still looking for a formula for deterring the new adversaries.
There may be no easier options than to start from scratch with good intelligence on the new terrorist organizations and the use of special operations fighters for pinpointed raids of their strongholds and leaders. Building and planting a new infrastructure for this strategy takes time. Purely defensive tactics, including Iron Dome anti-rocket batteries, are not the answer. And indeed the batteries deployed Friday did not stop the rockets fired the next day.