Israeli flares illuminate the Gaza Strip on July 7. (Jack Guez / Getty Images)
JERUSALEM — The deaths of nine Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip threatened Monday to escalate the cross-border shelling that already has sent Israeli and Palestinian civilians into bomb shelters.
Hamas claimed seven of its fighters were killed in a tunnel collapse it attributed to an Israeli airstrike; two others died in a separate bombing raids.
Israeli Defense Force spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said “the IDF targeted the tunnel” where the Hamas militants were killed “a few days ago” with an airstrike.
Disputing Hamas assertions that the militants were killed by the strike, Lerner said that “when the six or seven terrorists were killed, it was during what we believe was an attempted infiltration into Israel.”
“It appears they had placed some explosive devices and one of the devices exploded,” killing them, Lerner said.
Since midnight Sunday, Israel has carried out strikes against 15 targets in Hamas-controlled Gaza, while the number of rockets that have hit Israel since midnight totaled 39 as of 7 p.m. Israeli time, the IDF said.
Israel is calling up 1,500 reservists for a potential mission in Gaza, a senior military official announced after a meeting of the country’s security cabinet Monday, according to the Jerusalem Post. Hamas is not stopping other militant groups from firing at Israel and its fighters are taking a lead role in such attacks, mostly mortars and rockets, the official said, the Post reported.
The increased attacks along the Israel-Gaza border represent a second front for Israel, which has been trying to contain Arab rioting in many parts of Israel following last Wednesday’s murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Arab from East Jerusalem whose charred body was discovered in a Jerusalem forest.
His death followed the discovery of the bodies of three Israeli teens who were abducted in the West Bank on June 12 and killed.
On Sunday, Israel arrested six Israelis in connection with the Palestinian’s murder. Three of the six have confessed to the killing and re-enacted the crime, according to the Israel Police.
Whether Hamas will decide to avenge the killings by firing more rockets — including those that can reach central Israeli cities such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — could be a source of internal debate, says Jonathan Rynhold, a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.
“There will be militant elements in Hamas that will be trying to expand the rocket fire and make Israel pay a price for the killings. But there will be others in Hamas who don’t want an escalation for their own interests.”
If Hamas decides not to broaden the conflict, it could be because Egypt is exerting pressure on it, Rynhold says, because Egypt’s anti-Islamist government controls one of the two borders Gazans have with the outside world. Israel controls the other.
Rynhold believes Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose government rules the West Bank, holds very little sway over Hamas, even though Hamas recently entered into a unity government with Abbas’ Fatah party. Hamas, which Israel and the United States consider a terrorist organization, governs Gaza.
“It is hard to imagine Abbas having much leverage over Hamas, given Abbas’s condemnation of the kidnapping of the three Israeli teens,” an action Hamas applauded, but did not take responsibility for, Rynhold said. The teens were buried the day before Abu Khdeir was murdered. His death is being investigated as a revenge murder.
Kobi Michael, a senior research fellow at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, doubts the Palestinians in the West Bank or Israel (which includes East Jerusalem, according to Israeli but not international law) will attempt to launch a third intifada, or uprising.
Although Hamas would like nothing better than to stir up riots, “there is no energy among the Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank” — the main battle grounds of the first two uprisings — Michaels says. “There are no longer any Jewish settlements in Gaza to rise up against, and Abbas prefers to take his case for statehood to the international arena. That is where the Palestinians, not the Israelis have the advantage.”
On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke with the father of the murdered Palestinian teenager, saying “‘I would like to express my outrage and that of the citizens of Israel over the reprehensible murder of your son.”
Mohammed’s cousin, a 15-year-old Palestinian American, was injured during clashes with Israeli security forces last week. On Sunday, he was sentenced to nine days of house arrest, police spokeswoman Luba Samri said. Tariq Abu Khdeir, who lives in Florida but was visiting family here, will remain at a home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina.
Tariq’s family says he was severely beaten by Israeli police during protests in Jerusalem. The incident is under investigation.
When the news of the arrests in the Palestinian teen’s death broke Sunday afternoon, Israelis took to social media to express shock and disgust that a fellow Jew could commit such a heinous crime.
Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Avalon posted a statement on Facebook condemning Mohammed’s murder.
“This is not our way, and the criminals who performed this heinous act brought disgrace upon the Jewish people and the state of Israel,” Avalon said. “They must be brought to justice and prosecuted to the full extent of the law, as an example to others. Israel and the Jewish people’s strength is based on the Jewish morals and values.”
Jody Garfinkle, a Jerusalem mother of four told USA Today that “if these people are in fact the perpetrators of this horrible and inhuman crime they should be thrown in jail with no possibility of parole. Any person that would kill another human being and burn them to death is nothing other than a psychopath and does not belong in society.”
Rahel Jaskow, a Jewish resident of Jerusalem, took a similar view. “Whoever they are, whatever their motive — if they are guilty, I wish them exactly the same thing I wish the killers of our own three boys: justice, swift and strong,” Jaskow said. “If, in some parallel universe, I were the judge — Jewish or not — and the suspects were found guilty and were members of my own people, I would sentence them twice: once for the act itself, and a second time for dishonoring our people.”
Chabin is special for USA Today. Contributing: John Bacon and Oren Dorell of USA Today; the Associated Press