(January 9, 2018 / JNS) A Hamas cease-fire with Israel is being undermined by the activities of the second-largest terrorist faction in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).
Both Hamas and PIJ are ideologically committed to the Islamist goal of destroying Israel, and dedicate major resources to being able to wage rounds of armed conflict.
Yet Hamas, which rules Gaza and maintains the largest terrorist-guerrilla army there, is keen on preserving a truce with Israel at this time. Its reasons for sticking with the cease-fire are based on self-preservation, as a new conflict now would jeopardize its base in the coastal territory.
PIJ, the closest Palestinian faction to Iran, seems to view things differently. On Dec.30, terrorists fired mortar shells at a Kibbutz Kfar Aza, a community near the Gaza border in southern Israel. The attackers targeted a birthday ceremony held for fallen IDF soldier Oron Shaul, whose body remains in Hamas’s possession. Those who took part in the ceremony fled for cover as sirens sounded and mortars fell.
Following President Donald Trump’s recent recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Hamas would find itself in a “very uncomfortable situation in the event of a clash with Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and therefore, we are continuing to live in the unsolvable equation in Gaza,” Prof. Uzi Rabi, a Middle East expert from Tel Aviv University, told JNS.
An IDF investigation into the Dec. 30 attack revealed that the mortar shells used in the attack were manufactured in an Iranian weapons factory. They were smuggled into Gaza, via the Sinai Peninsula, in 2008. The investigation found that the mortars, of the 120-millimeter variety, were an exact match to those fired a month earlier in late November at IDF posts near Gaza. November’s attack was conducted by PIJ as revenge for an Israeli military operation to demolish a cross-border PIJ tunnel. It took little time for the IDF to conclude that PIJ was behind both incidents.
The implications of these developments might threaten prospects for prolonging the current relative quiet along the Gaza border. PIJ is willing to take considerable risks to launch projectiles at Israel, and an Iranian hand seems to be pushing the 10,000-member-strong organization to step up attacks. Hamas’s ability to restrain PIJ is nowhere to be seen.
Yet Israel continues to view Hamas as the ruling party in Gaza, and the Jewish state’s retaliation policy—striking Hamas targets in response to all incidents of cross-border fire, no matter who conducts it—continues.
Some observers believe Hamas did not really lose its ability to rein in PIJ, but that it is in fact playing a double game of sorts, allowing PIJ “off the leash” every once in a while before pulling it back.
“Hamas is sovereign in Gaza,” Prof. Boaz Ganor, founder and executive director of Israel’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, told JNS.
“That is not a meaningless statement, but rather, a factual description of the situation. As a result, Hamas has the ability to restrain any rebellious organization, be it PIJ or the Salafi (Islamic State-affiliated) organizations. Yet this kind of restraint has a price, damaging Hamas’s image among the Palestinian public, and the self-image of its operatives and leaders, who are meant to be the flag bearers of the ‘resistance’ to Israel,” Ganor said.
Ganor also drew attention to Hamas’s growing reliance on Iranian financing and Hezbollah assistance. According to IDF assessments, Iran has sent $100 million to Hamas and PIJ in recent months alone. This dependency, he said, “makes Hamas, on the one hand, more exposed to pressure by these elements regarding their protégé, PIJ.”
“However,” Ganor continued, “in Hamas’s balance sheet of interests, the importance of Egypt is infinitely greater than Iran’s importance, and an escalation against Israel runs contrary to the Egyptian interest.”
As a result of this complex picture, Ganor said it is reasonable to assume that “Hamas will allow PIJ to conduct sporadic fire at Israel,” but only as long as Hamas believes this will avoid a significant escalation, and so long as it assesses that it can continue to pursue its double game of satisfying “both its masters”—Iran and Egypt.
“This policy will continue so long as Hamas estimates that it can contain the incidents, without being portrayed as the defender of Israel and without aggravating the Egyptians,” stated Ganor.
Tel Aviv University’s Rabi doubted Hamas’s ability to restrain PIJ.
“There is no doubt that Hamas’s room to maneuver and take action against the rebellious organizations [in Gaza] is still in effect, but not when we are talking about Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” Rabi said.
He added, “One must recall that [PIJ] is an organization with skills and capabilities, including 10,000 personnel, which is funded and equipped by Iran, and which has all of the reasons in the world to ignite the situation.”