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Analysis

As Islamic Jihad sparks Gaza-Israel conflict, all eyes are on Hamas

Hamas regards its last major confrontation with Israel, in May 2021, as a success. But does it want another round now, triggered by its smaller, Iran-backed ally-rival?

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Rockets fired by Palestinians toward Israel, in Gaza City, August 5, 2022. (AP/Fatima Shbair)
Rockets fired by Palestinians toward Israel, in Gaza City, August 5, 2022. (AP/Fatima Shbair)

The latest confrontation between Israel and Gaza’s terrorists does not have its origins in the Hamas-run Strip.

To some extent, it began in Jenin on Monday night, when the IDF arrested the West Bank leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terror group, Bassem Saadi, 61. Repeatedly jailed by Israel over the years, Saadi had been establishing “a significant military force for the organization in [the northern West Bank] in general and in Jenin in particular” in recent months, according to the Shin Bet security service.

To a still wider extent, however, it can be traced to Iran, which has reportedly funneled tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to PIJ in recent years to finance its recruiting and its weaponry in both Gaza and the West Bank.

For more than three days in the wake of Saadi’s arrest, facing what Israeli officials said Friday were “concrete” threats that PIJ was bent on avenging his capture by targeting Israeli civilians and soldiers near the Gaza border, Israel imposed a semi-lockdown on its residents near the Strip, bolstered its troop deployments, and warned Islamic Jihad via Egyptian mediators to stand down.

According to the account given by the IDF Spokesman Ran Kochav in a Channel 12 interview on Friday night, once it became clear that an attack orchestrated by PIJ’s northern Gaza commander Tayseer Jabari was set to go ahead, and once the IDF had compiled the necessary intelligence, a targeted strike was ordered on Jabari in his Gaza City apartment. And other members of his cell, who had intended to “mow down” Israelis near the border, were eliminated too.

As Israel then carried out further strikes on PIJ targets across Gaza, and the terror group fired barrages of projectiles at central and especially southern Israel, PIJ’s commander was being hosted by his funders in Tehran. From the Iranian capital, Ziad Nakhaleh, declared, “We are going into battle. There are no ceasefires after an attack.”

Leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group Ziad Nakhaleh. (Video screenshot)

But Nakhaleh does not want PIJ to be fighting alone. “This is a test for all parts of the resistance,” he asserted, in what was plainly a call for Hamas to join in.

Gaza’s rulers offered a distinctly ambivalent response: “The resistance, with all its arms and military factions, is united in this campaign and will have the last word,” it said in a statement.

Hamas and the far smaller, less potent PIJ — it is estimated by Israel to have no more than 10,000 fighters and a stock of some 10,000 rockets — share the strategic goal of eliminating Israel, but their shorter-term interests are not always aligned. With no designs on governance and no civilian responsibilities, PIJ has its Iranian backers to please in causing maximal harm to Israel right now, while Hamas has what to lose.

It knows the IDF has a very long list of potential Hamas targets should this conflict widen.

It may not wish to alienate the Egyptians, who control Gaza’s southern border and who, as so often in the past, are seeking to mediate an end to the fighting.

And it is well aware that Gaza’s pitiful economy can ill afford another battering of the Strip. Gazans have limited electricity at the best of times, and the Strip’s sole power station was on the point of closing down due to a lack of fuel supplies from Israel — a consequence of this week’s lockdown — even before Friday’s eruption of conflict. Agricultural exports have been stuck, rotting, for the same reason.

Some 15,000 Gazans who usually work in Israel — the government has gradually raised this number in recent months — were unable to do so this week, and desperately need to resume earning. If things get worse, discontent with Hamas rule will deepen.

The damaged apartment of Tayseer Jabari, the Islamic Jihad commander for northern Gaza, following an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, Friday, August 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Israel did its utmost in the first hours of the conflict to stress that it was solely targeting PIJ assets, not those of Hamas. The IDF was engaged in “a targeted campaign against PIJ,” spokesman Kochav said repeatedly in his TV interview, and military officials made the same point in media briefings.

This contrasts sharply with previous Gaza escalations and potential escalations, when Israeli leaders have often stressed that no matter which terror group was attacking or threatening Israel, Hamas would be held responsible as Gaza’s ruling force.

Hamas asserted victory in the last major round of conflict, in May 2021, when its rocket fire toward Jerusalem against a background of growing tensions in and around the Old City triggered an 11-day confrontation. To its delight, the fighting helped foster deadly Arab-Jewish confrontations inside Israel, West Bank riots, and even minor cross-border fire from Lebanon and Syria. It also featured heavy Israeli airstrikes on the Strip, causing considerable damage to Hamas and its infrastructure — though nowhere near as much as Israel would have wanted.

The question that will define the course of this new PIJ-prompted surge in violence is whether Hamas judges its interests to be best served by staying out or wading in.

In brief Friday night remarks delivered live to the Israeli public, but also aimed at least partially at Hamas, Prime Minister Yair Lapid insisted that “Israel isn’t interested in a wider conflict in Gaza, but will not shy away from one either.”

He also noted that “Islamic Jihad is an Iranian proxy” and that “the head of Islamic Jihad is in Tehran as we speak.”

PIJ and its Iranian sponsors may be hoping for a new installment of May 2021’s multi-front conflict against Israel — an installment that they, rather than Hamas, caused this time.

Hamas’s ties with Iran have been relatively warm of late, although it is emphatically not a classic proxy of Tehran. And it is always interested in principle in confronting Israel. But does Hamas want to be dragged into a fresh round, by its much smaller local ally-rival and by Iran, at a time and in a context not of its choosing?

We’ll know soon enough.

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