PIJ-Israel skirmish: Hamas ‘sitting on the fence’ policy approaches a pivotal junction

If Hamas chooses to maintain its policy of neutrality, the next round of conflict could lead to an unintended domino effect, drawing it into a battle against its will and its own interests.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad fires rockets at southern Israel from the Gaza Strip, May 10, 2023. Photo by Majdi Fathi/TPS.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad fires rockets at southern Israel from the Gaza Strip, May 10, 2023. Photo by Majdi Fathi/TPS.
Avi Melamed. Credit: Courtesy of Didier Bodin.
Avi Melamed

The recent skirmish between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Palestine (PIJ) highlights PIJ’s increasing influence in dictating escalation in the Israel-Gaza conflict over the past decade. This trend has posed a growing challenge for Hamas, which has governed the Gaza Strip since 2007. It has intensified tensions between the two powers.

Both Hamas and PIJ share the goal of eliminating the State of Israel through military means and have a military cooperation agreement, including the operation of a joint headquarters to coordinate their attacks against Israel. Iran provides arms and financial support to both groups, with PIJ acting as Iran’s proxy.

Each round of military confrontation between Israel and Gaza is driven by the desire of one of the sides—Israel, Hamas or PIJ—to establish a deterrence balance that aligns with its own objectives. As a result, each side seeks the best timing and optimal circumstances to proactively shape a new equilibrium using military power. In this regard, Hamas and PIJ have different considerations.

Hamas, as the governing authority in the Gaza Strip, faces significant blame from the Arab world for the dire situation in Gaza. With each military conflict with Israel, the despair in Gaza deepens, and the recovery process becomes increasingly prolonged. The people of Gaza endure worsening economic hardships, and Israel has responded by granting work visas to tens of thousands of Gazans, allowing them to find employment and thereby support their families. Given these circumstances, Hamas has no interest in engaging in another military confrontation with Israel in the foreseeable future.

In contrast, PIJ does not prioritize government accountability like Hamas does. It enjoys unwavering support from a loyal and dogmatic political base in Gaza that wholeheartedly embraces its militant path. This approach benefits PIJ in two ways: It establishes the group as a significant player in the Palestinian arena and attracts generous support from Iran, which fuels the flames of the conflict.

PIJ’s growing ability to dictate escalation in the Israel-Gaza conflict puts Hamas in a difficult position. Primarily, it undermines Hamas’s control over the terms and timing of reshaping a new equilibrium. As a result, Hamas is facing a dilemma. On the one hand, succumbing to PIJ’s increasing influence presents Hamas as weak, hindering its aspirations to become the dominant Palestinian player and gain recognition as a regional force. On the other hand, restraining it undermines Hamas’s core commitment to armed resistance against Israel and may lead to a confrontation with PIJ.

In this recent skirmish that just ended with a ceasefire, similar to August 2022, Hamas has chosen a policy of “sitting on the fence” by abstaining from direct involvement. This approach has its advantages. By refraining from active participation, Hamas ensures that Israel’s focus remains on targeting PIJ’s military infrastructure, thereby minimizing collateral damage to the people of Gaza. Additionally, Israeli attacks gradually weaken IJIP over time by depleting its military capabilities.

While the “sitting on the fence” policy offers some benefits, it also carries risks for Hamas. Hamas’s neutrality has faced increasing criticism, with detractors blaming the group for failing to defend Gaza and abandoning its commitment to fight Israel.

In the next inevitable skirmish, mounting pressure may force Hamas to reconsider its position and join the fight.

Even if Hamas chooses to maintain its policy of neutrality, the next round of conflict could lead to an unintended domino effect, drawing Hamas into the battle against its will and against its own interests. Hamas’s neutrality also diminishes its value to Iran, inevitably leading to increased Iranian support for PIJ.

This past week’s skirmish ended with Hamas once again avoiding direct involvement. Looking ahead, it will be increasingly difficult for it to sustain the policy of sitting on the fence. Hamas must make a critical choice: either curbing PIJ’s ability to dictate escalation, even at a price of confrontation, or risking a massive collision with Israel, embracing the risks that entails.

Avi Melamed is a former Israeli intelligence official who served as deputy and then senior Arab affairs advisor to Jerusalem mayors Teddy Kollek and Ehud Olmert, operating as a negotiator during the first and second intifadas. Author of “Inside the Middle East: Entering a New Era,” he is the founder and chief education officer of the nonprofit Inside the Middle East. His latest work is “The Seam Line,” a docuseries on Jerusalem’s flashpoints and his work during the intifadas. It streams on IZZY on May 18.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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