PIJ Rocket launcher (Website of the Jerusalem Brigades, the PIJ's military-terrorist wing)
A rocket that hit Israel's south (Photo by Edi Israel reprinted courtesy of NRG, March 12, 2014).
The IDF staff meets to appreciate the situation (IDF Spokesman, March 12, 2014).
1. Between March 11 and 13, 2014, there was a round of escalation in rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip targeting Israel's south, the most serious since Operation Pillar of Defense (November 2012). It began with PIJ mortar shell fire that attacked an IDF force engaged in security activities near the border fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip. In response Israeli Air Force (IAF) aircraft struck the squad firing the shells, killing three terrorist operatives. In retaliation, the PIJ launched a massive barrage of rockets into southern Israel. More than 80 rockets and mortar shells fell in Israeli territory (most of them in the western Negev), more than the total number of rocket hits identified since Operation Pillar of Defense (between November 2012 and the current escalation, 63 rocket hits were identified).
2. The latest round of escalation ended with a return to the lull through direct contacts via a channel established between the PIJ and Egypt. According to PIJ leader Ramadan Shallah, the Egyptians opened the channel and the PIJ responded to the Egyptian appeal to keep the situation from spinning out of control. Hamas expressed criticism that the agreement had been reached "through unjust circumvention" of Hamas (Al-Jazeera, March 14, 2014).
3. The latest round of escalation showed the importance of the PIJ, the second largest Palestinian terrorist organization in the Gaza Strip. The PIJ is supported by Iran and is not limited by the considerations of governance that restrain Hamas. The massive barrage of rocket fire showed that the PIJ was occasionally prepared to challenge Israel and Hamas, exploiting Hamas' political weakness in the post-Morsi era. However, the rapid end of the escalation, the PIJ's contacts with Egypt for renewing the lull and the fact that most of the rockets targeted the western Negev and not beyond – all indicate, in our assessment, that at this stage the PIJ does not seek an escalation, despite its militant rhetoric. Rather, the PIJ is trying to institute stricter game rules in its engagement on the ground with Israel while not allowing the situation to deteriorate and spin out of control.
The Sequence of Events
4. On March 11, 2014, a squad of PIJ terrorist operatives fired mortar shells at an IDF force engaged in routine security activities near the border fence between Israel and the southern Gaza Strip. Following the attack IAF aircraft struck a PIJ terrorist squad. The Jerusalem Brigades, the PIJ's military-terrorist wing, later confirmed that three of its operatives had been killed, claiming they had been killed in an [Israeli] "raid" in the region of Khan Yunis. According to the announcement, the three, before their deaths, had succeeded in firing mortar shells at an IDF force (Alresala.net, March 11, 2014). The Palestinian media reported that three PIJ operatives had been killed near the Sufa crossing (east of Rafah).
5. Following the deaths of the three terrorist operatives the PIJ began firing rockets into Israeli territory.
a) March 12, 2014 – Massive rocket and mortar shell fire was carried out simultaneously along the entire Gaza Strip border from north to south, most of it targeting the western Negev. More than 60 rockets and mortar shell hits were identified in Israeli territory (IDF Spokesman, March 12, 2014).
b) March 13, 2014 – In the morning, after several hours of quiet, the rocket fire was renewed. More than 15 rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip at the population centers of the western Negev. Rockets were also fired at Ashdod and Ashqelon (Ynet, March 13, 2014).
c) March 14, 2014 – Two rocket hits were identified in open areas in the western Negev.
6. Most of the rockets were fired by the PIJ, but other smaller terrorist organizations also claimed responsibility for rocket fire (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and others). On March 13, 2014, the PIJ said in an announcement that a lull agreement with Israel had been brokered by Egypt. Egypt confirmed the agreement. After the announcement sporadic rocket fire continued and eventually ceased.
Launching rockets (Website of the Jerusalem Brigades, the PIJ's military-terrorist wing)
7. The Jerusalem Brigades, the PIJ's military-terrorist wing, claimed responsibility for the rocket fire, claiming it was "breaking its silence" [i.e., ignoring the limitations and restraints it had placed on itself]. According to senior Jerusalem Brigades figures, Israel had been surprised by the extent of the rocket fire (Paltoday.ps, March 14, 2014). The PIJ threatened greater escalation and noted its readiness to continue firing rockets. The Jerusalem Brigades exploited the events to boast about its weapons, including what it described as a multi-barreled underground rocket launcher.
8. Jerusalem Brigades spokesman Abu Ahmed said that the rockets had been fired at areas close to the Gaza Strip border, but threatened that if Israel dared another escalation the Jerusalem Brigades would respond in a way "Israel would not expect." He added that the Jerusalem Brigades had a comprehensive plan to enlarge its response in the scenario of a future escalation. He said the response would be fully coordinated with the other organizations in the Gaza Strip, adding that there was already full coordination between his organization and Hamas' military wing (Alresala.net, March 12, 2014). The media affiliated with the PIJ praised the rocket fire and mortar shell fire into Israeli territory, boasting that the organization had sent millions of Israelis running to bomb shelters.
9. Other organizations also claimed responsibility for the rocket fire, among them the PFLP, the DFLP and Fatah's Shaheed Amin Joda network. It is not clear to what extent they participated in the rocket fire, but obviously the PIJ played the main role in the recent escalation.
10. On the evening of March 12, 2014, in response to the rocket and mortar shell fire targeting Israel's south, the IAF struck 29 terrorist targets in the Gaza Strip (IDF Spokesman, March 12, 2014). Later, in view of the fact that the rocket attacks continued, on the night of March 13, 2014, the IAF struck seven additional terrorist targets (three in the northern Gaza Strip and four in the southern Gaza Strip). On the afternoon of March 14, 2014, the IAF struck additional terrorist targets. In addition, on the morning of March 14, IDF tanks fired at two terrorist targets in the northern and southern Gaza Strip. The Palestinian media reported that a Popular Resistance Committees post west of Rafah and an Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades post had been struck, but there were no casualties.
Rocket launching squad attacked (IDF Spokesman, March 13, 2014).
11. Following the barrage of rocket fire, the Israeli Chief of Staff and the Minister of Defense appreciated the situation. The Minister of Defense said that Israel would not turn a blind eye to the massive rocket fire and would not permit the PIJ or any other organization in the Gaza Strip to disrupt the lives of the citizens of Israel. He said that without peace and quiet in Israel there would be no peace and quiet in the Gaza Strip. He added that Hamas was responsible for events in the Gaza Strip and had to enforce quiet, and if it did not it would pay a high price (IDF Spokesman, March 12, 2014).
12. Following the massive rocket fire, the Israeli Minister of Defense ordered the closing of the Kerem Shalom crossing and limited the activities of the Erez crossing. He said they would return to full operation according to security considerations and an evaluation of the situation on the ground. The Kerem Shalom crossing reopened on March 16, 2014, to allow for the delivery of fuel to alleviate the Gaza Strip's energy crisis (Ynet, March 15, 2014).
The Egyptian-Brokered Lull
13. On March 13, 2014, the PIJ said in an announcement that a lull in the fighting with Israel had been agreed on. Egypt confirmed that an agreement had been reached. According to PIJ secretary general Ramadan Shallah, the Egyptians contacted the PIJ and the organization responded positively to the Egyptian appeal to keep the situation from spinning out of control (Al-Jazeera, March 14, 2014).
14. PIJ spokesman Abu Ahmed said that the organization would uphold the lull as long as Israel upheld it. He said the operatives of his organization had not left [their stations] and were still deployed on the ground, ready to respond to any "Israeli aggression." He said that what made the current situation different, as opposed to previous operations, was that Israel had not succeeded in harming either operatives of his organization or their rocket launchers (Sawt al-Quds, March 13, 2014).
15. Hamas criticized the lull brokered through direct PIJ-Egyptian contacts. Ghazi Hamad, deputy foreign minister of the de-facto Hamas administration, said that the Egyptians had directly contacted the heads of the PIJ, "unjustly circumventing" Hamas. He said he hoped that in the future coordination would be accomplished "though the proper channel" to preserve unity in the ranks and to send a message of unity (Al-Jazeera, March 14, 2014).
Other Reactions to the Rocket Fire
The Palestinian Islamic Jihad
16. The PIJ used the escalation for propaganda purposes, calling the events an "achievement" and "victory" for the organization. According to an articled entitled "Breaking the silence…a military and security victory," the organization claimed it had carried out disinformation in the media and surprised Israeli intelligence by coordinating all its artillery units in the Gaza Strip to attack Israel simultaneously. The article also stressed the "correct management" of the rocket fire by showing discipline regarding the limited range of the rocket fire (Filastin al-Yawm, March 16, 2014).
17. Hamas spokesmen did not excessively react to the rocket fire. Ihab al-Ghussin, spokesman for the de-facto Hamas administration, accused Israel of responsibility for the escalation and its consequences, and stressed the right of the "resistance" to "self-defense." Taher al-Nunu, Ismail Haniya's public relations advisor, stressed the adherence of the organizations in the Gaza Strip to the lull agreement as being in the Palestinians' interest. He added that it was Israel that had insisted on violating it and on carrying out "crimes" against the Palestinians.
The Palestinian Authority
18. Nabil Abu Rudeina, spokesman for the presidential office, said that Mahmoud Abbas demanded that an end be put to Israel's military escalation in the Gaza Strip, which he said was "under siege." He said the escalation exposed the Gazans to isolation and catastrophe, war and destruction (Ma'an News Agency, March 13, 2014).