Israel blames Gaza-based Palestinian terrorist group for coordinated attacks

Laura Rozen

Israel is still reeling from Thursday's series of terrorist attacks that killed eight Israeli citizens and wounded 30 more near the Jewish state's southern border with Egypt. And beyond the immediate shock of the attacks, analysts are also concerned about the potential for violence to escalate.

Israel blamed the attacks on a shadowy Palestinian terrorist group called the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), based in the Gaza strip. The group reportedly has ties to both Hamas' military wing and the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

The attacks began at noon on Thursday. Gunmen reportedly crossed from the Gaza strip into Egypt and then into southern Israel and opened fire on an Egged bus traveling from the southern city of Beersheva to the resort town of Eilat. That assault wounded seven people, according to a timeline of the attacks published by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Half an hour later, an Israeli Defense Forces unit responding to that attack was wounded by an explosive device. At 12:35 p.m., mortars were fired from Egypt into Israel, but no one was hurt; by 1:10, an Israeli anti-tank vehicle fielded shots near the Egyptian-Israeli border, wounding seven more people. At nearly the same moment, at 1:11 p.m., another anti-tank missile was fired at a private vehicle, killing six people. In all, eight people were killed, including six civilians, and two Israeli security forces.

Israel began retaliating Thursday evening by bombing the Popular Resistance Committee's headquarters in Rafah, on the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt. The Israeli counterattack killed the head of the PRC, and several of his aides, as well as a Palestinian boy. The Israeli air force has continued to strike targets in Gaza, killing two more PRC members on Friday in a Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza, Al Jazeera's Safwat Al Kahlout reported. It has also retaliated against rocket attacks coming from Egypt.

Israel will "exact a heavy price, a very heavy price" from those who "attempt to escalate terrorist war against Israel [and] believe that they can attack our citizens and get away with it," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed in a press conference Thursday, Al Jazeera reported. Netanyahu thanked Israeli security forces for "wiping out the leaders" of the PRC.

Israeli officials asserted that the PRC had set out to kidnap Israelis, although they did not provide evidence for the claim. The group reportedly was one of three that took credit for kidnapping Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006. That incident preceded a Hezbollah provocation on Israel's northern border and Israel's subsequent 2006 war in Lebanon.

Israeli officials were more cautious about assigning culpability to Egypt for the fact that the assailants reportedly crossed through Egyptian territory to perpetrate the attacks. Instead, they focused blame on Gaza, which is controlled by the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

"This is a serious terror attack that took place in several locations," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Thursday, Haaretz reported. "The incident shows the weakening Egyptian grip on Sinai and the widening operation of terrorists there. The source of these terror acts is in Gaza and we will act against them with full force."

But analysts cautioned that many questions remain unresolved about the incident--from its ultimate aims to its specific source. A spokesman for the PRC denied Friday that the group carried out the attacks, though he went on to praise them, Agence France Press reported Friday.

"There are lots of questions regarding this incident," said Jeffrey White, a former Defense analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an email to The Envoy Thursday. Asserting close ties between the PRC and Hamas, "a real question," White wrote, "is Hamas knowledge/involvement." And with that specter on the horizon, he added, "there is plenty of potential here for escalation."

"Furthermore, the incident is seriously aggravating Israeli-Egyptian relations," White continued, in an analysis prepared with Ehud Yaari for the Institute, citing Cairo's complaints that Israel killed and wounded several Egyptian soldiers in responding to rocket fire coming from Sinai.

"The scenarios range from it was this group [the PRC], with or without the knowledge of the military wing from Hamas," said Hussein Ibish, an Arab-American analyst with the American  Task Force for Palestine, in a telephone interview with The Envoy Friday. "Or that could be a convenient scapegoat. I have absolutely no way of knowing."

But Ibish suggested it was worth considering the regional context, and the potentially useful distraction such an attack might pose for Syria's embattled leader Bashar al-Assad and his key regional ally Iran. The West and the Arab world alike have condemned Assad's brutal crackdown against domestic anti-government unrest; President Obama indeed announced this week that the United States supports Assad's ouster.

"There's no evidence of a Syrian or Iranian role; but one could posit scenarios where people in the region might like to have flare ups," Ibish said. "These things often do have a regional context. Even small groups [such as the PRC] can be a proxy" for various regional actors, he noted.

A Reuters analysis of the PRC also notes that the group uses an emblem that bears a strong resemblance to the Iranian and Syrian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Reuters also reported that Israel believes the group gets backing from Hezbollah.

The United States sharply condemned the attacks, in statements from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the White House.