Despite huge tunnel setback, Islamic Jihad likely won’t start war with Israel

After IDF destroys cross-border attack tunnel, killing terrorists, Gazan terror group faces pressure from enclave rulers Hamas to avoid conflict

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

The body of Marwan Alagha, 22, is carried by mourners after he was killed when Israel blew up a tunnel built by the Islamic Jihad terror group stretching from the Gaza Strip into its territory, at Naser hospital in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on October 30, 2017.  (SAID KHATIB / AFP)
The body of Marwan Alagha, 22, is carried by mourners after he was killed when Israel blew up a tunnel built by the Islamic Jihad terror group stretching from the Gaza Strip into its territory, at Naser hospital in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on October 30, 2017. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

It should have been one of the quietest and most festive weeks in the Gaza Strip. On Wednesday, Hamas is ostensibly set to hand over control of the border crossings to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority as part of the reconciliation accord.

With a delegation of Egyptian officials due to visit the Gaza Strip in the coming days, the Erez and Kerem Shalom border crossings are slated to officially be relinquished to Palestinian Authority oversight in the first concrete step in the rapprochement agreement between rival factions Hamas and Fatah.

Though this transfer of power is not particularly dramatic since PA forces, and not Hamas, are already running the two crossings, the symbolic gesture to a certain extent was to signal a new era in Gaza.

That was, until Israel destroyed an active terror tunnel extending from the coastal enclave into southern Israel, killing two senior fighters of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist organization and and at least five others on Monday.

Israeli soldiers patrol close to the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip on October 30, 2017, near Kibbutz Kissufim in southern Israel. (AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA)

Israel’s decision to blow up the tunnel near Kibbutz Kissufim on the border instantaneously changed the conversation in the coastal enclave. Instead of discussing unity, reconciliation, and an improved economic situation, Gazans were again speaking of martyrs, escalation of hostilities, and tunnels.

It appears that the coastal enclave refuses to give up its wicked ways — Gaza will always be Gaza.

An Israeli soldier stands guard next to Israel’s Iron Dome defence system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, deployed close to the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip, near Kibbutz Kissufim in southern Israel, on October 30, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)

The Israeli operation was certainly justified.  The demolition of the terror attack tunnel was carried out inside Israeli territory — showing clearly that the tunnel was an act of aggression by the Islamic Jihad terror organization, which dug into Israel with the goal of carrying out a terror attack at some point.

It is hard to think of a better, or more legitimate reason for Israel to act.

However, as a result of the destruction of the tunnel, seven terrorists were killed and a further 12 were injured (at last count), raising the possibility that the Islamic Jihad group will respond by firing rockets at Israel. Israel’s reaction to any rocket fire would be swift, and Hamas would likely then get involved.

On the one hand, it appears the Islamic Jihad has all the reason it needs to seek revenge for the attack on its men; it is the highest death toll for the Palestinians since the end of 2014’s Operation Protective Edge.

On the other, the terror group has many reasons not to respond, foremost of which is the pressure for restraint by Hamas.

Illustrative: The IDF excavation of a recently discovered tunnel running from Gaza into the Eshkol region of southern Israel on May 5, 2016. (Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Reconciliation or war?

The Hamas terror organization which rules Gaza does not want an escalation right now. It wants reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority.

Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and his colleagues do not hide the fact that they want to achieve three goals in the near future — quiet, quiet, and more quiet. And without the backing from Hamas and a real pretext for war, it is doubtful that the Islamic Jihad would rush to draw two million Gazans into another war.

Despite the anger over the deaths of the terrorists, those living in the coastal enclave, like the heads of Islamic Jihad, know there is no real reason for them to react now, other than to let off some steam. They know that Israel acted within its own borders, and was working to prevent a terror attack by Islamic Jihad. The terror organization is paying the price for its own actions.

Members of Islamic Jihad carry the body of a fellow militant who died in a tunnel collapse at his funeral in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, July 19, 2016. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

There is another factor that makes war more unlikely and has many people in Israel and Gaza breathing a tentative sigh of relief: the fact that it was not a Hamas terror tunnel, even though two of those killed in the blast and collapse were members of the Hamas naval squad.

According to Hamas, the two tried to help free those trapped in the tunnel and suffocated on poisonous gasses that were released within the underground passage.

Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, nonetheless faces no pressure from the Palestinians in Gaza to respond. Quite the opposite — the people of Gaza want quiet, an improvement in their economic situation, and unity. An attack by Islamic Jihad at this time won’t serve that purpose.

What did the IDF know?

The cryptic response from Israel also raises numerous questions. What exactly are the new technological innovations vaguely cited by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that enabled Israel to locate the tunnel? If this was a tunnel built by the Islamic Jihad, how many more Hamas attack tunnels are out there that Israel knows about?

Was the operation an attempt to send a message to the Palestinians and Hamas about what will happen to those who attempt to sneak into Israel through tunnels?

What were two Hamas operatives, members of its elite unit, doing there?

Was the destruction of the tunnel foiling a specific, planned terror attack, nipping it in the bud?

Did Israel know there were terror operatives inside the tunnel including Arafat Abu Murshad, the Islamic Jihad’s central Gaza commander, and his deputy Hassan Abu Hassanein?

Screen capture from an Islamic Jihad video showing its members preparing an anti-missile for firing at IDF forces along the border with the Gaza Strip. (YouTube/alquds Brigades)

An IDF spokesperson said the army did not know anyone was inside the tunnel.

At this point, it appears that the deaths of the senior officers was no more than a coincidence. And it wouldn’t be the first time Israel and the Palestinians found themselves in this position, amid Palestinian unity negotiations.

In June 2006 the Israeli Air Force attacked a training camp of the Popular Resistance Committee, a terror group headed by former Fatah and Tanzim member Jamal Abu Samhadan. Samhadan was by chance in the camp at the time and was unintentionally killed by the Israeli planes. That incident led to discussions of Palestinian unity based on the National Conciliation Document of the Prisoners released by Marwan Barghouti.

A few days later, the terror attack was carried out which led to the kidnapping of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. That was the end of the unity talks.

Will the reconciliation agreement suffer a similar fate? Or will Islamic Jihad be able to restrain itself?

In the next few days, we will likely find out.

Most Popular
read more: