Confrontation this week between Hamas and Israel, in which the Islamist group fired rockets at its enemy after a year of standing in the wings, reflects a bolder stance after the rise to prominence in Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood, experts say.
The violence began on Monday, when Israeli air raids killed four Palestinian militants. The Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Gaza’s Hamas rulers, said one of the victims was a member of their group.
On Wednesday, the Brigades declared a ceasefire in the violence, which had cost the lives of 10 Palestinians and saw four Israeli border guards wounded, saying it had fired 120 rockets since the violence erupted.
There were sporadic attacks from Gaza over the following two days without an Israeli response, and on Friday an Israeli air strike killed one Palestinian.
Until now, “April 2011 was the last time that Hamas officially took part in rocket fire,” analysts Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff wrote in the Haaretz daily.
“Most of the rockets have been launched at military bases or other security forces — a new method of operation for the organisation.
“If until now it has refrained from launching rockets into Israel, it is clear that, over the past two days, Hamas has changed the rules of the game and will only launch rockets at military targets,” they said on Wednesday.
Ahmad al-Turk, a professor at the Islamic University in Gaza, said the political situation in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood experienced a heady rise in popularity and influence after the overthrow last year of president Hosni Mubarak, “is working in favour of Hamas and the Palestinians.”
The latest round of violence coincided with Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi’s claim on Monday that he had won a weekend run-off for the presidency against Mubarak’s last premier, Ahmed Shafiq.
Also claiming victory, on Thursday, Shafiq said he was confident he would be declared Egypt’s “legitimate” president.
Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political science professor at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, said Morsi’s declaration led Hamas to “test Israel to determine whether it has the intention of launching a war against Gaza.”
A senior Israeli official said bluntly: “There is a connection between the flare-up of violence in Gaza and the Egyptian election.”
“The Islamists are trying to change the status quo,” added the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“They are hoping that an Islamist government in Cairo would be more complacent about terrorist activities in Gaza and (Egypt’s) Sinai,” which borders the Jewish state.
Egypt, under the late president Anwar Sadat, was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, and Mubarak had honoured that treaty during his three decades in power.
For its part, Israel’s Maariv daily on Friday offered a much more straightforward explanation of what had prompted Hamas to break its de facto ceasefire.
Analyst Ofer Shelah wrote: “This time around Hamas leapt to the forefront, for a few obvious reasons, first and foremost being that a Hamas senior official was targeted as part of the response to the terror attack at the beginning of the week.
“This policy isnât new: Israel decided a while ago that it views Hamas as the sovereign responsible for (the Gaza Strip), and will act against its people even when it is clear that they were not the ones firing at us.”
“On the other hand, Israel takes into account that there is a price to dragging Hamas into the circle of violence, as it is more powerful than Islamic Jihad or the minor organisations.”
In the meantime, as the Al-Qassam Brigades agreed to a truce, Shelah said “both sides are handling the conflict like hedgehogs: very carefully. Each side says to itself that the other side just wants to end things safely. No one has any achievable goals in sight.”