Israel Accuses Iran of Ordering Palestinian Rocket Fire From Gaza

Israel Accuses Iran of Ordering Palestinian Rocket Fire From Gaza

JERUSALEM — Israel accused Iran on Saturday of ordering attacks by the Palestinian militant group that took responsibility for a heavy barrage of rocket fire from Gaza overnight.

Israel responded to the attacks on its southern territory, which were claimed by the group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, with retaliatory airstrikes against militant targets in Gaza. No fatalities were reported on either side.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israel military spokesman, said the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force had communicated directly with Islamic Jihad, a mostly Iranian financed extremist group in Gaza, and had ordered and orchestrated the rocket fire.

“We do not take that lightly,” Colonel Conricus said, adding that Israel had passed messages through third parties warning that any Israeli response would not necessarily be “confined to geographic areas,” meaning that it could extend beyond Gaza.

While the focus was on Iran, Colonel Conricus also accused neighboring Syria of playing an unspecified role in the rocket fire, suggesting that the orders might have come from Iranian forces deployed there.

A spokesman for Islamic Jihad, Daoud Shehab, denied that the group had acted on orders from Iran’s Quds Force or any other outside force. He said the group had retaliated for the killing of four Palestinians by Israeli forces on Friday during weekly protest along the Gaza border fence.

“What we did was a duty to defend the blood spilled by the army on the Gaza borders,” Mr. Shehab said.

Islamic Jihad generally works in coordination with Hamas, the larger Islamic militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. But Islamic Jihad sometimes asserts itself and competes with Hamas.

In an apparent attempt to pull back before dragging Gaza and Israel into a wider escalation, however, Islamic Jihad said Saturday that it was stopping rocket launches and that, with Egypt’s help, an understanding had been reached to restore calm.

Israel has fought three wars against the militant groups in Gaza over the past decade, the last one in 2014.

Israeli and Palestinian analysts speculated over possible Iranian motives for ordering the launches of nearly 40 short-range rockets in four barrages from nightfall on Friday until about 10 a.m. on Saturday.

Several said it most likely had to do with an Iranian desire to disrupt broader efforts by Egypt and the United Nations to stabilize the cease-fire that ended the 2014 war between Gaza and Israel, and possibly to expand the terms of the truce.

Some analysts view the cease-fire talks as part of a more ambitious American plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement that might soon be presented by President Trump.

“Even if the Iranians want to confuse everything, there is no chance they can do that now,” said Talal Okal, a Palestinian writer and political analyst living in Gaza City, adding that both sides were moving toward a stable truce.

While Israel wants quiet, Hamas wants an easing of the blockade on Gaza that Israel imposes, with Egypt’s help, citing security concerns. Such an easing would provide some relief for the two million residents of the impoverished coastal enclave.

In one small sign of progress this past week, Israel resumed the transfer of Qatari-funded fuel shipments into Gaza to alleviate a chronic electricity shortage there. The fuel transfers had been suspended in mid-October in response to previous violence along the border.

“Islamic Jihad knows it cannot change the current,” Mr. Okal said by phone from Gaza City. “But at this moment, it is motivated to present itself as an independent faction and not one that is always subject to the decisions of Hamas.”

Ron Ben-Yishai, a military affairs commentator for Ynet, a Hebrew news site, wrote on Saturday that Iran most likely wanted to spoil any plans for a grand Israeli-Palestinian deal and to pressure the Americans not to go ahead with the next wave of sanctions against Tehran’s oil exports.

“Simply put,” Mr. Ben-Yishai wrote, “the Iranians are trying to pressure the Americans by sabotaging their interests regarding Israel.”

The rocket fire began soon after Israeli forces killed four Palestinians and wounded scores during the border protest on Friday. The Israeli military said rioters had hurled grenades, firebombs and rocks and in two cases, Palestinians briefly crossed the fence into Israeli territory.

No Israeli soldiers were hurt. On Saturday, a fifth Palestinian man died of wounds sustained the day before.

Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system intercepted about 17 rockets that appeared headed toward Israeli civilian communities — mainly the border town of Sderot — according to the military. Others fell in open ground.

The Israeli military said it first responded with airstrikes against 87 targets belonging to Hamas, which Israel ultimately holds responsible for all violence emanating from Gaza, and later against eight targets belonging to Islamic Jihad.

Friday’s rocket fire also came soon after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to Israel and revealed that he had gone to meet Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman, an influential Persian Gulf nation state that has long acted as a regional go-between, and with which Israel has no formal diplomatic relations.

Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, the foreign minister of Oman, on Saturday offered some insight into the role the sultanate sees itself playing in efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

Speaking at the Manama Dialogue organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies is the Bahraini capital, Manama, he described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a relic of the past that the Middle East and the region needed to move beyond for its own security and development.

He said that Oman felt the time was right to began making “modest efforts” to bring the parties together.

“We are not mediators in this issue, but we are providing facilitation and ideas that could have something new in them,” he said, adding that the real work of brokering an agreement had to come from the United States.

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