Iran is unhappy with Egypt’s involvement in the mediation between Israel and Hamas to achieve calm in the Gaza Strip.
Towards the end of October 2018, Israel and Hamas were very close to reaching an understanding for temporary calm in Gaza. On Oct. 26, 2018, the Al-Hayat newspaper reported that understandings had been achieved to reduce the violence. The launching of incendiary balloons and Molotov cocktails and attempts to infiltrate into Israel would all stop in exchange for Israel easing the embargo on Gaza.
This developments led to Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, during a tour of the area of the Kerem Shalom crossing, to express hope that Friday, Oct. 26, would be calmer. In fact, matters immediately spun out of control, and five Palestinians were killed in riots on the Gaza border. Islamic Jihad, directed by Iran, decided to react to the Israeli “slaughter” by firing dozens of missiles at Israeli civilian towns.
Islamic Jihad has a new leader, Ziad Nahlah, who is based in Beirut, Lebanon. His finger is quick on the trigger, and he is yearning to prove himself very quickly, just one month after his election to his new position.
Nahlah created Islamic Jihad’s military wing, known as Saraya al-Quds (the Jerusalem brigade). Previously, he served as deputy to the organization’s previous leader Abdullah Ramadan Shalah, who is incapacitated as the result of a serious stroke.
Nahlah is bound by money and extreme ideology to Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Al-Quds brigade of the Revolutionary Guard.
Iran is bankrolling all the activities of Islamic Jihad in Gaza and the West Bank, and providing it with new weapons. Islamic Jihad is the second largest organization in the Gaza Strip after Hamas, and there is a very high level of coordination between both groups.
Iran is calling the shots
According to sources in Gaza, Ziad Nahlah received instructions from Iran to sabotage the understandings with Egypt. The explanation he has given for his decision to fire missiles towards Israel is that his organization cannot ignore Israel’s killing of civilian demonstrators.
Additionally, on a personal level, he is angry with the leaders of Egyptian intelligence because they ignored his new initiative for internal Palestinian reconciliation, and for this reason he is not participating in the talks on reducing hostilities with Israel.
According to Hamas sources, Islamic Jihad informed Hamas about the missile raids, and Hamas could not oppose it due to the fury on the streets of Gaza over the deaths of five demonstrators at the border fence.
Response to Netanyahu’s reception in Oman?
An additional reason for Iran ordering Islamic Jihad to escalate the situation in Gaza is connected to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Oman on Oct. 26, 2018.
The Iranians are concerned that Oman will mediate between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and will help President Donald Trump implement his new diplomatic plan for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict known as “the Deal of the Century.”
Iran intends to drag Israel into an extensive military conflict in the Gaza Strip through provocations from Islamic Jihad, thus burying any chance of Omani mediation in the political process and keeping the IDF and Israeli air force occupied on the southern front instead of in the north, where Iran is building its military presence in Syria.
November 4, 2018, the date for the next round of U.S. sanctions against Iran, is approaching, and the Iranian leadership is afraid that President Trump will keep his promise to impose further sanctions on the export and sale of oil. An escalation in Gaza and embroiling Israel in a large military confrontation is an attempt to deter President Trump from carrying out his plans.
Israel’s stance is justified. Hamas is a huge organization, and it rules Gaza. Therefore, it bears responsibility and has a role in restraining the other organizations to preserve the understandings for reducing tensions.
For this reason, the IDF attacked Hamas military positions and command posts on Oct. 26, so that it could not evade its overall responsibility for the security situation in Gaza.
Relations between the forces of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the rivalry between them for the honor and support of the Gazan population, and the relations between Islamic Jihad and Egyptian intelligence are of no interest to Israel. For Israel, there is only one address for what goes on in the Gaza Strip, and that is Hamas.
The current ceasefire with Islamic Jihad and Hamas that was achieved with Egyptian involvement is extremely fragile, and any incident on the border can lead to further escalation.
In the meantime, until the next round of scheduled demonstrations in Gaza, Israel is concerned about a meeting of the PLO’s Central Council on Oct. 28, at which Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to take further actions such as additional financial cuts against Hamas that could also lead to an explosion in the Gaza Strip.
The head of Israel’s Security Agency (Shabak), Nadav Argaman, has warned Abbas on behalf of Israel’s leadership not to take any decisions that could inflame Gaza any further, but whether the message has been received remains to be seen.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.