After Rockets Are Fired at Tel Aviv, Israel and Hamas Quickly Pull Back
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JERUSALEM — Israel and Hamas on Friday worked quickly to de-escalate after a rare instance of rocket fire from Gaza launched against Tel Aviv the night before.
The events underscored that neither side appears to want a broader clash right now, and at the same time, the ever-present chance of a miscalculation setting off the next war.
Thursday night, rockets from Gaza that headed for Tel Aviv seemed to come out of the blue, then disappear almost without a trace. Israel blamed Hamas, which controls Gaza, and retaliated swiftly, with strikes at what it said were Hamas military sites and compounds throughout Gaza.
Hamas denied responsibility for the attacks, but had nonetheless expected such a response and left the sites ahead of time.
By Friday morning, Israeli military officials said that operatives had launched the rockets from a Hamas launcher “by mistake.” The officials would not elaborate.
About 10 hours after the flare-up began, a fragile calm appeared to have been restored.
Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israel Police, said remains of one rocket was found on Friday in an open area south of Tel Aviv.
There were no details about the other rocket, which could have fallen into the sea or exploded midair.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad are the only groups in Gaza known to possess rockets with a range capable of reaching Tel Aviv.
A spokesman for Islamic Jihad, Dawoud Shehab, said that Egyptian officials had been making contact with the militant groups in Gaza throughout the night to restore the Egyptian-brokered truce that ended the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas.
“The Egyptians are effective mediators up to a point,” said Michael Herzog, an Israel-based fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has participated in past Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
“They can restore calm when the two sides have a basic interest in a cease-fire,” he said, “but they cannot do the magic when one party does not.”
Mr. Herzog said the Israeli military’s claim of a mistaken launch was reasonable since Hamas did not usually start off a round of hostilities by firing directly at Tel Aviv.
In most cases, he said, Hamas would begin firing on areas closer to Gaza and then, depending on the Israeli response, build up to targeting the densely populated commercial hub of central Israel’s coastal plain.
In what appeared to be a further effort to tamp down tensions, Hamas and the other militant factions in Gaza announced Friday morning that they were canceling that afternoon’s protest along the fence that divides the Palestinian territory from Israel.
The organizing committee described the postponement — the first in almost a year — as an “exceptional” move in the “public interest” as they prepare for what they hope will be a million-strong demonstration on March 30, the anniversary of the start of the often-violent protests, in which scores of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire.
“We confirm to our people that the protests will continue,” the committee said in a statement.
The anniversary event could prove explosive, coming days before Israeli elections scheduled for April 9.
Israeli leaders are considered unlikely to want a major conflagration in the run-up to the national ballot.
Hamas is also not eager for another war, according to experts.
Gaza is already suffering an acute economic crisis, and Qatari assistance that was promised for six months is due to expire in April. Youths demonstrated in the streets in Gaza for a second day on Friday against the daily hardships of life in the territory.
“Hamas understands that another major round of hostilities would have a devastating impact on the Gaza Strip,” Mr. Herzog said.
“Hamas’s idea was to play with the level of the flames, to apply pressure to get more,” he added. “The problem is when you play such brinkmanship you can cross the line and find yourself in undesired confrontation.”
Hamas did not refer directly to the Israeli military’s claim that the rockets were fired by mistake on Thursday.
Moussa Abu Marzouk, the deputy head of Hamas’s politburo, appeared to contradict the claim, describing the rocket fire as “political” and suggesting it was carried out by rogue operatives who he said were pushing for a war.
Some Israelis were skeptical, too, although the mistake theory allowed Israel to retaliate in a measured way and to avert more fighting.
Tal Inbar, an Israeli missile expert, told Israeli public radio on Friday: “I don’t know of many such errors. You can’t say that this can never happen, but the likelihood is usually not high. A variety of steps have to be taken before you fire a rocket. It’s not that someone fell asleep and leaned on a button or sneezed or something like that. So this claim has to be examined.”