The IAF struck several targets in the Gaza Strip Thursday night in retaliation for the firing of a Kassam rocket earlier in the evening.
The rocket had fallen near Ashkelon, causing no casualties or damage. Hours later, the military said it struck several weapons factories in the north, south and center of the Strip.
It was not clear whether there were Palestinian casualties.
Hamas is under growing pressure from competing Palestinian terrorist factions to renew attacks on Israel from Gaza, and will likely resume terrorism soon, according to the latest assessments within the defense establishment.
The video footage released on Wednesday of the clash in the southern Gaza Strip last Friday during which a Golani Brigade officer and a second soldier were killed, as well as Hamas’s persistent claim that its fighters and not Islamic Jihad’s were behind the attack, is viewed by the defense establishment as an indication that Hamas may be planning to renew its attacks.
Since Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip last winter, Hamas has mostly refrained from attacks. It has altogether stopped its rocket attacks – although other terrorist factions have fired intermittently. It has, however, reserved for itself the right to attack along the Gaza border.
The pressure on Hamas is believed to be coming from three main sources: the Palestinian street, radical Palestinian terrorist groups that are affiliated with al-Qaida and which continue to attack Israel, and finally, mid-level Hamas military commanders who are frustrated with the organization’s decision to hold its fire.
While Hamas has yet to completely resume its attacks, it is continuing to rebuild its military infrastructure in the Gaza Strip and to smuggle in advanced weaponry.
An example was revealed on Thursday when Egyptian security forces announced that they had discovered a massive arms cache in the central Sinai Peninsula that was probably on its way to Hamas in Gaza. The cache, according to Egyptian media reports, included 100 anti-aircraft missiles, likely to be shoulder-launched, as well as 40 rocket-propelled grenades and 40 other explosive devices.
Hamas was believed to already have shoulder-to-air missiles before Cast Lead, but they were not used, leading Israeli intelligence analysts to conclude that while it had obtained the missiles, Hamas did not have a chance to train its fighters to use them before the IDF offensive. The same applied to anti-tank missiles.
Israel now believes that Hamas has trained its men to use the advanced weaponry, mostly by sending them to Iran and Lebanon.
News of the cache discovery comes after Egypt recently began a nationwide crackdown on Hamas’s smuggling industry and expanded its efforts to its southern border with Sudan, where trucks make their way from port cities along Africa’s Red Sea coast to the Philadelphi Corridor between Sinai and Gaza.
One of the main routes used by Iran to smuggle weapons to Hamas in the Strip starts at sea, with ships that dock in ports in Eritrea and Sudan. The cargo is transferred to trucks that travel through the Sudanese desert, up thorough Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula until they unload their cargo along the Philadelphi Corridor, a 14-kilometer strip along the Gaza border which is home to hundreds of smuggling tunnels used by Hamas to bring weaponry and explosives to the Strip.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, for his part, on Thursday called on Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel.
Speaking to Hamas’s leader in Syria, Khaled Mashaal, Lavrov said the organization must stop the “unconscionable firing of rockets from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel.”
Mashaal said in response that the Hamas leadership had decided to “maintain the calm, and is not interested in escalating the tension.”
He promised that his organization would take “appropriate measures to prevent the rocket fire.”
Meanwhile Thursday, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) released its monthly report on March and noted an increase in Palestinian terrorism which it attributed to the recent violent demonstrations in Jerusalem.
In total, 125 terror attacks were recorded in March in comparison to 53 in February. The major increase was recorded in Jerusalem and along the Gaza border where in addition to the IDF troops, a Thai worker was also killed.
In Jerusalem, 27 attacks were recorded in contrast to three in February. Sixty-two attacks were recorded in the West Bank in contrast to 37 in the previous month. In total, 54 Molotov cocktails were thrown in the West Bank and another 25 in Jerusalem.
A man was wounded in his head Tursday night by a stone hurled at his car while driving by the Chawara checkpoint near Yitzhar. He was evacuated in light condition for medical attention.
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