By JOSHUA MITNICK
TEL AVIV?Israel launched multiple air attacks over the weekend against Gaza militant groups, killing at least five and escalating violence as part of an effort to pursue al Qaeda-inspired Salafi operatives, which the Jewish state accuses of launching attacks from Gaza and Egypt's Sinai Desert.
Israel's army said on Sunday that it targeted a militant squad in central Gaza that was on the verge of launching a rocket into Israel. A day earlier, Israeli forces killed Hisham Saidani, who was the founder of a Salafi underground group in Gaza that the Israeli army said was responsible for killing two soldiers in 2009, launching rockets and was planning a new Sinai attack.
The spread of Salafi militants in the Gaza Strip poses a challenge not only to Israel but also to Hamas, which must strike a balance between observing an informal truce with Israel in order to build up Gaza's economy, and not appearing vulnerable to accusations that it is no longer at the forefront of the fight against the Jewish state.
Mr. Saidani, who was accused by Israel of trying to spread in Gaza the teachings of radical jihadist groups with links to al Qaeda, had spent two years in Hamas's prisons before being released in August. Hamas had accused him of kidnapping Italian pro-Palestinian activist Vettorio Arrigoni in 2011.
"Global jihad is stepping up its efforts to attack us and we will continue to act against it with strength and aggression, both through retaliation and through pre-emptive strikes,'' said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of his weekly cabinet meeting.
The Salafi groups in Gaza that Mr. Saidani was involved with have been attracting a growing number of hardened militants frustrated with Hamas's decision to tamp down violence against Israel. Israel accuses the groups of trying to exploit a security vacuum in the Sinai Desert to initiate attacks that have destabilized the formerly quiet border between Israel and Egypt.
"The Salafis are making things uncomfortable for Hamas in Gaza," said Mkahimer Abusada, a political-science professor at Gaza City's Al Azhar University, adding, "Palestinians will ask for revenge and retaliation."
"Hamas has been repeatedly saying that they are more interested in rebuilding Gaza, and alleviating daily problems, and fighting unemployment," he said. "Hamas doesn't want to be busy with other things.''
Indeed, Hamas has been trying to enable the re-establishment of building and road infrastructure destroyed by Israel in a brief war fought nearly three years ago.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum accused Israel's government of launching the strikes to win popularity ahead of an election scheduled in January. He made a general statement saying that the attacks would trigger revenge strikes by Palestinians, but stopped short of promising that the response would come from Hamas itself.
"Resistance is always the result of the occupation's aggression,'' he said. "Its duty is to defend people and break the equation of the occupation.''
Some three years ago, Hamas launched a deadly offensive on a Salafist mosque near the border with Egypt out of concern of the movement's growing power. That said, Israeli analysts said Hamas has links to the Salafist groups through militants that have moved back and forth between Gaza's armed factions.
The weekend wave of Israeli attacks followed a surge of cross-border mortar and rocket launches by Gaza militants on the Jewish holiday of Simhat Torah last Monday. The flare-up has spurred renewed speculation in Israel that a new major offensive in the Gaza Strip is needed to deter further attacks.
However, because Israeli parliamentary elections are scheduled for January, Mr. Netanyahu is expected to seek a resumption of the truce rather than pursue a politically risky military foray into Gaza.