Hamas fired a rocket on the Gaza Belt area Sunday afternoon shortly after outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert threatened a “serious, painful, strong, and uncompromising retaliation” following eight rocket attacks on the Sabbath.
The Prime Minister warned that the Israeli response will be “beyond the expectations of the terrorists…until total quiet is restored to the South." Acting Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said that Israel will take military action if the rocket attacks do not stop.
The afternoon rocket strike, which caused no injuries or damage, was a clear challenge to Olmert, who will leave the next government with results of action or inaction on his part.
The Bethlehem-based Maan news agency, closely linked with the Palestinian Authority, directly linked the rocket attack with Olmert’s threats. “Homemade projectile launched from Gaza lands in Ashkelon hours after Olmert vows painful response to projectiles,” it told its readers.
The attack was the latest in a rapid show of strength by Hamas since the Olmert government ended the three-week Cast Lead campaign with the declaration that it had crippled Hamas, ensured security for southern Israel and paved the way for the release of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.
Hamas, led by Syrian based Khaled Mashaal, has tried to prove that Israel failed on all fronts. The long-range Grad attacks on the Sabbath on Ashkelon, one of which blasted through a school fortified to protect students and teachers form missiles, turned the clock back to the days before Operation Cast Lead.
Police said the rocket was more powerful than previous types, indicating that Hamas has stockpiled more advanced rockets or is smuggling them into Gaza. Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire at the end of Operation Cast Lead with the understanding that the United States and Europe would prevent smuggling with technology and monitors along the Egyptian border.
Knesset Member Dr. Yuval Steinitz (Likud), former chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said at the time that the proposed measures would not work. He maintained that the only way to stop smuggling is to declare the entire border area a closed security zone.
While the sirens of the Code Red early warning sound again almost every day in the Western Negev, Hamas’ leader Mashaal dispelled any hopes of the Olmert government that it will be able to secure the freedom of Shalit without releasing at least 450 terrorists, including those who have murdered Israelis.
Hamas also flexed its muscles against the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, rejecting an offer for unity on the basis of recognition of Israel. Another bold step was a brief visit at Rafiah by Mashaal’s number one deputy, Moussa abu Marzuk. He has been in hiding from Gaza for 22 years and is one Israel's most wanted terrorists, and his entry into Gaza was a sign that Hamas is not afraid of an Israeli attack.
A donors' conference scheduled for Cairo on Monday has attracted international figures to Gaza. Quartet Middle East envoy Tony Blair was the latest visitor, following a trip by last week by United States Congressmen, including the highly influential Senator John Kerry, and the arrival of European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana.
Blair said he would work for the opening of the Gaza crossings, a demand that Hamas has made as a basis for a ceasefire, which it said must be reached before any deal can be concluded for Shalit. Israel has insisted that his release precede a truce,
Observers have said that Hamas is exploiting the vacuum in the Israel government as Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu tried to form a narrow coalition with nationalist and religious parties after Kadima leader Tzipi Livni rejected a unity government.