Hamas firing rockets at Jerusalem shows crisis may not end soon

The escalation of violence, including Hamas rocket barrages and Israeli airstrikes, may not end soon, analysts warn

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As thousands of ultranationalist Israelis gathered on Monday night to mark the anniversary of the seizure of East Jerusalem, air raid sirens rung out in the holy city as rockets flew in from Gaza.

The wail of the sirens initially caused confusion in the crowds.

They're just flexing muscles to show they can hit that far

Unlike in Tel Aviv or towns bordering the blockaded strip where such sounds are not uncommon when skirmishes break out between Israel and Gaza’s armed groups, Jerusalem has not come under direct rocket fire since 2014.

Monday night’s attacks, coming amid the worst outbreak of violence in the holy land in years, have already sparked a series of airstrikes and retaliatory rockets that lasted through the night and into Tuesday.

So far, at least 25 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza – including at least nine children – and two have been killed in Israel while six others were wounded.

Michael Stephens, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said that the targeting of Jerusalem was symbolic for the militants and stemmed from what he says were provocative Israeli actions at Al Aqsa Mosque.

“I think the targeting was in response to it being a Jerusalem centric incident,” he said.

On Monday, police raided Al Aqsa in response to what they said was hundreds of people throwing rocks at officers ahead of controversial Israeli Jerusalem Day celebrations. Over 700 Palestinians were wounded in Monday’s clashes.

Anger was already bubbling through Ramadan over the potential eviction of Palestinians by Israeli settlers from the flashpoint East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

“The tensions have just risen to a head with these particular ‘real estate disputes’,” he said.

“The Israelis have then made it way worse by policing badly.”

Mr Stephens said he believed neither side had anything to gain from the current conflict.

Joe Truzman, an analyst with the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, said the targeting of Jerusalem was very out of character for Hamas and the other armed groups in Gaza.

“It almost doesn't make sense. Because they could have hit Al Aqsa,” he said.

He said he believes the move could be a sign that the conflict will not end anytime soon.

“In 2014, during the Gaza War, they fired on Jerusalem. One of the rockets did land near an Arab majority area. It's just showing they're just flexing muscles that they can hit that far,” he says.

But Mr Truzman warns that despite “muscle-flexing” the conflict could be one of the worst for some years.

“These groups previously keep firing until they are satisfied their objective has been met. In this case, obviously with the constant fighting, unpredictable things happen such as the recent killing of senior members of Hamas. So, they responded to that with multiple waves of rocket attacks, towards [the Israeli town of] Ashkelon.”

The rocket fire on Ashkelon on Tuesday killed two Israelis.

“So it is hard to say when it stops,” he said.

Mr Truzman says it is possible foreign mediation could yet calm the conflict.

“In previous negotiations for ceasefires, especially in 2018 and 2019, you had Egypt playing a critical role negotiating a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza, so it could happen. But it's just honestly a guess because right now things are pretty bad,” he said.

“You know, two people have died already in Israel, according to reports so Israel will feel the need to respond to that.”

Mr Truzman says that a key figure renowned for de-escalating tensions was Nikolay Mladenov, former UN special envoy for the Middle East Peace Process.

Mr Mladenov cultivated a strong reputation for calming tensions in prior conflicts. But he left his post in December.

“He was very good at this. He was very good at bringing the two sides together and creating calm, but he's not there anymore. So yeah, so this is going to be interesting. We'll see how long this lasts.”