A group claiming to be the "Islamic State" in Gaza said today —then retracted — that it was responsible for two large blasts at the French cultural center in Gaza City on Tuesday evening. The explosions were attributed to faulty fuel tanks, according to Gaza authorities.
But in Gaza, where residents are just beginning to put together the pieces after an Israeli military campaign this summer that killed more than 2,100 people, most met the claims with indifference and skepticism.
The self-proclaimed "Islamic State" group, which many in Gaza said they'd never heard of before, claimed in fliers shared over social media that it had placed 200 kilograms of explosives next to the building's fuel tankers and electricity generators.
The flier also referred to the French cultural center, which is run by the French consulate in Jerusalem, as a "center of moral corruption," Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported. The newspaper claimed that "sources in Gaza… suspected a religious or political motive behind the blast."
No one was injured in the blast. The center was empty at the time of the explosions, as Gazans celebrated the holiday of Eid al-Adha, though a fire caused by the blasts burned on for several hours, causing damage primarily to the facility's restaurant.
Hours later, the "Islamic State" group put out a different statement, this time saying they didn't do it. Its mission is to "implement Sharia law in Islamic lands and murder the children of Zion," the second flier reportedly said.
But Gaza residents were skeptical of both statements — which they said received much more attention in Israel than in the occupied territory itself. Several people noted that the statements were poorly written, with grammatical mistakes, and even the wrong date — raising questions about the authenticity of any group behind it.
Also, Gaza residents really didn't seem to care.
"No one is really talking about it," Mohammed Sulaiman, who lives near the site of the explosion and heard the blasts, told VICE News. "No one is worrying about it, just the media. But it takes away from more important issues, most notably the blockade on Gaza."
That sentiment was shared by many — with some pointing out that the incident "stole the spotlight" from other issues, like renewed efforts at Palestinian reconciliation, including concurrent visits by top Fatah leaders to Gaza, and ongoing clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli police in Jerusalem's old city.
"Yesterday's explosion of course pales in comparison with the violence wrought against Gaza by Israel, most recently during the state's 51-day war by land, air, and sea -- which killed upwards of 2,100 people, 501 of them children," Middle East analyst Samer Badawi told VICE News. "Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to justify this onslaught by likening Hamas to ISIS, but, if anything, reactions in Gaza to yesterday's bombing further debunk that spectacular and unsubstantiated claim."
Badawi is referring to an August 20 speech in which Netanyahu stated, "Hamas is like ISIS, ISIS is like Hamas. They are branches of the same tree."
The Hamas authorities in Gaza today played down reports of the explosions being anything more than an accident. In a statement on his Facebook page, Interior Ministry Spokesman Iyad al Bozum reportedly wrote that the fire was caused by "faulty fuel tanks," and that authorities where investigating the incident.
"Hamas was quick to disavow reports that an ISIS affiliate was behind the explosion, demonstrating that the Palestinian group views ISIS as a source of instability, not support," Badawi added.
Unverified rumors of possible "Islamic State" cells being organized in the occupied Palestinian territories have not been uncommon over the last few months. After three Israeli settlers went missing in June — and were later killed, — a group that claimed to be the "Islamic State" in the West Bank claimed responsibility for the abduction. The authenticity of that group's existence, like of the group that made claims in Gaza today, was never verified.
Critics of the occupation have said the threat of an Islamic State presence in Palestine has been blown out of proportion and used as an excuse to divert attention from the suffering of the Palestinian people.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi