The conflagration that erupted within hours of the killing by Israel on Tuesday of senior Islamic Jihad commander Biha Abu al-Ata underscores the crucial differences between Hamas, the Gaza Strip’s ultimate ruler, and Islamic Jihad, the second strongest force in the coastal territory.
Most important is the two terror groups’ divergent strategic objectives, at least since the summer 2014 confrontation between Hamas and Israel—the longest and fiercest round of hostilities over Gaza to date.
While Hamas views violence as a means for increasing the volume of trade with Israel and securing the inflow of Qatari money, both of which enhance the welfare of its hard core and that of the Gaza population at large, Islamic Jihad seeks full-fledged confrontation as part of an Iranian strategy to deflect attention from Tehran’s Syrian military buildup and regional expansion.
These differing strategic goals are reflected in the differences between the two groups’ political and organizational structures.
A popular Sunni organization clearly identified with the wider Muslim Brotherhood movement, Hamas is like a fish in water in Gaza, the population of which are mostly devout Sunnis. If there are any Gazan Shi’ites, they keep their beliefs and rituals strictly to themselves.
In devising its strategy, Hamas must take into consideration this popular base, which at the very least comprises the 50,000 men and women whose salaries depend on Hamas’s retention of control of Gaza. Hamas is also consistently the major force in the institutions of higher learning, labor organizations and other social organizations in Gaza.
Islamic Jihad, on the other hand, is known for its strong links to Iran and has no popular base. Though valued for its sacrifices, most Gazans suspect Islamic Jihad members of being Shi’ites in disguise. A form of love-hate relationship thus prevails between the general population and Islamic Jihad, that has become more pronounced as the conflicts between Shi’ites and Sunnis in Syria, Iraq and Yemen intensified.
This is why in election after election in Gaza universities and trade unions, as well as repeated polling surveys, Islamic Jihad secures a mere two or three percent of the vote. By contrast, Hamas and its rival Fatah movement have rarely secured less than 15 percent over the past three decades.
A telling indication of Islamic Jihad’s limited popularity was afforded by the real-time airing of Abu al-Ata’s funeral procession just hours after his killing, where it was hard to count more than 100 participants. (Of course, the paltry count is partially due to most Islamic Jihad members being either busy firing rockets or hiding in underground tunnels, which is why participants were not masked to hide their identities.)
Despite the “Joint Command of the Palestinian Factions” façade of unity, the only flags visible at the funeral were the black ones, indicating that not only is Islamic Jihad not a mass-based organization, it is also relatively isolated from the other Gaza groups.
Both of these qualities are a boon for Tehran. For one thing, Islamic Jihad’s paltry popular base means its dependence on Iran is all the greater. For another, the organization can operate without the need to take into account the welfare of the Gaza population.
For Hamas, of course, none of the above is new. Its leaders are keenly aware who wags Islamic Jihad’s tail, the reasons behind its activities and the ways its strategy conflicts with Hamas’s current agenda.
By the same token, Hamas cannot afford to bring an immediate end to the rockets. After all, the targeting by Israel of high-level commanders in the Gaza Strip is a red line for Hamas, too—especially when they come as a complete surprise rather than in retaliation for specific terror attacks.
At a deeper level, Hamas can only constrain rather than stop Islamic Jihad because it needs Iran as well. The demise of Islamic State and the killing of its founding leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, brought home to Hamas that the power of a terrorist organization depends to a large extent on the quality and number of its state allies. Islamic State had none; hence its demise. Hamas can hardly be choosy, since most of the Sunni Arab states oppose its activities (probably because of its affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood), while a much more sympathetic Turkey has its own concerns in Syria.
This in turn means that, at least in the short run, Israel and Hamas have a mutual interest: to keep the conflagration short and not too lethal. Israel because it does not want to deflect attention from Tehran’s expansionism and nuclear program; Hamas because it wants to maintain power in Gaza and needs to cater to the welfare of its population, or at least its hard-core base.
The question, of course, is whether the two sides will be able to maintain sufficient control of events to achieve this common goal.
Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University, and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.