GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Instead of the wedding drums that typically provide the evening soundtrack in this forlorn coastal strip, the black, still air was pierced by gunshots Thursday, as citizens fired celebratory rounds after the ruling Hamas faction announced that one of its rockets had hit an Israeli aircraft.
The Israeli Defense Forces denied the hit, though footage on Hamas television and YouTube appeared convincing. Either way, the reaction was nonetheless emblematic of the latest lopsided battle between this impoverished, intensely crowded and hemmed in enclave and its militarily mighty neighbor to the north — as was the rat-tat-tat of gunshots being quickly overtaken by the thunder of F-16 strikes across the city.
“The mood of the people is high despite the siege, despite the Israeli aggression,” said Dr. Hassan Khalaf, director of Al Shifa Hospital here, where many of the 16 Palestinian dead and 150 injured were taken.
“To be killed while smiling or while confident or not confident, the final outcome is death,” Khalaf added. “At least now we feel like we can injure the Israelis while they try to harm us.”
Nearly four years after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead killed some 1,400 Gazans in three weeks of air and ground assaults in response to repeated rocket fire, this new conflict has a decidedly different feel, and not just because Israel has said that it has tried to limit its attacks to precision strikes. This time, Israeli forces are fighting a newly emboldened Hamas, supported by the regional powerhouses of Qatar, Turkey and Egypt, and demonstrating its strength compared with a weak and crisis-laden Palestinian Authority.
After months of mostly holding its fire as it struggled to stop other militant factions from shooting rockets across the border, Hamas has responded forcefully to Israel’s killing Wednesday of its top military commander, Ahmed Al-Jabari. It sent more than 300 rockets into Israel over 24 hours, with several penetrating the heart of Israel’s population center around Tel Aviv; three civilians were killed in an apartment building some 15 miles north of Gaza, and three soldiers were injured in a separate strike.
For Hamas, the goal is not necessarily a military victory, but a diplomatic one, as it tests its growing alliance with the new Islamist leadership of Egypt and other relationships in the Arab world and beyond.
“The new X-factor is that Egypt is now part of that mix,” said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Hamas, he said, hopes the message to Israel will be: “You don’t want to mess with us in Gaza because you’ll hurt your relationship with Cairo.”