Is this the beginning of a major war in Israel? Israeli buses and cars were attacked Thursday on Highway 15, a rural road to Eilat, an Israeli resort town on the northern edge of the Red Sea. Two factors make these attacks especially frightening. First, they occurred more than 100 miles from Gaza, the area where the militants apparently originated. If Israel’s enemies can now move with impunity into the country, the nation faces a terrorist threat on a scale it has not encountered in many years. Second, these attacks have apparently come from a new source of aggression against the State of Israel. If this is true, the Middle East just became more complex than we thought it was yesterday.
As of this writing (10:00 P.M. Thursday night), here’s what we know so far. At noon today local time, a civilian bus in southern Israel was attacked by gunfire. Its windows were shattered as seven passengers were wounded. Within an hour, another passing bus and two cars were riddled by gunmen. A roadside bomb then detonated under an army jeep rushing to the scene, wounding four soldiers. Simultaneously, mortar gunners began firing at soldiers along the Gaza-Israel border fence.
A total of seven Israelis were killed, including one soldier. Israeli soldiers eventually killed five attackers. Roadblocks were erected in the area, sealing roads in and out of Eilat. An emergency session of senior Israeli security officials was then convened. A few hours later, an eighth Israeli was killed by militants.
Now we are hearing of three explosions in Gaza and airstrikes targeting a security compound on the Gaza/Egypt border. Gaza officials are attributing these strikes to Israel, but the Israeli military has not immediately confirmed their role in these attacks. In response, militants launched three rockets at the coastal Israeli city of Ashkelon.
Israel blames the terrorism of this day on the Popular Resistance Committees, a group linked to Hamas. Militants from Gaza apparently made their way into the neighboring Sinai Peninsula and then into Israel. The Egypt/Gaza border has become riddled with smuggling tunnels through which Egyptian militants arm Gaza jihadists in their conflict with Israel. Since the fall of the Mubarak regime, the Egypt/Israel border has also become an easy point of passage for militants into southern Israel.
Who is Hamas?
Now let’s set these latest attacks in context. What follows is taken from my latest book, Radical Islam: What You Need To Know.
The primary areas of Palestinian occupation in Israel are called the “West Bank” and the “Gaza Strip.” The former covers 2,177 square miles, an area slightly smaller than the state of Delaware. Its name is derived from its location on the western bank of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea; its population exceeds 2.5 million people. The latter is an area 25 miles long and 4 to 7.5 miles wide, with a population of 1.6 million people.
The West Bank is governed by Fatah, an acronym for “Palestinian National Liberation Movement.” The political party was founded in 1959 by Yasser Arafat, who led the group until his death in 2004.
The Gaza Strip is governed by Hamas (“fervor”), which is an acronym (spelled backwards) for “Islamic Resistance Movement.” The group’s origins go back to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who began his movement in the late 1960s as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1973, he established the “Islamic Center” to coordinate the Brotherhood’s activities in Gaza, and founded Hamas as their political arm in 1987. It published its official charter in 1988, calling for the destruction of Israel and raising “the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.”
For much of the group’s history, the military wing of Hamas, called the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigade, has sponsored terrorism against Israel. It has repeatedly launched rocket attacks at Israeli towns, and sponsored a series of suicide bombers before Israel constructed a security fence around its borders. The Brigade claims more than a thousand members and is believed to have killed more than 500 people.
Hamas has also engaged in social and political work, funding healthcare clinics, orphanages, sports leagues, mosques, and schools. More than 90 percent of its work is cultural, social, and educational.
The group operated as an opposition party in the Gaza until winning parliamentary elections in 2006. Since that time it has been at odds with Fatah, which still governs the West Bank, so that the Palestinian people have had no unified government or advocate. The two parties have pledged cooperation and a mutual election in 2012. Whether Hamas will be a partner in peace negotiations with Israel remains to be seen.
What do these attacks mean?
This could be a minor skirmish in the continuing conflict between radical Muslims and the State of Israel. Or the events of this day could signal a major new offensive. Hamas has denied responsibility for these attacks. If this is a legitimate statement, Israel must now confront jihadist organizations and strategies that lie beyond its negotiations with Hamas and Fatah. Such renegade terrorist groups will be much more difficult to contain through peaceful means.
In addition, the distance these jihadists were apparently able to travel into Israel is very troubling. The security fences which Israel constructed around the Gaza Strip were successful in keeping suicide bombers from attacking Israeli citizens. But there is apparently now an easy way for militants to skirt these fences and attack civilians in southern Israel with impunity.
It is too soon to know what this conflict will become. But Scripture is clear: we are to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6). In our intercession we are to seek “peace within your walls and security within your citadels” (v. 7). While the Israeli military works to restore order to this conflicted region, we can join the battle on our knees.