Flare-up bequeaths new ‘alliance,’ as Hamas, Israel avoid fighting each other

Previously, Israel always blamed Hamas for Gaza terror; not this time. And Gaza’s rulers were happy for Islamic Jihad to fight alone. Why the change, and what does it presage?

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.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists attend the funeral of one of their members in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, November 14, 2019. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP)
Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists attend the funeral of one of their members in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, November 14, 2019. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP)

The latest escalation of violence between Israel and the Gaza Strip may have looked much like the many that have preceded it, perhaps even marginal by comparison with rounds of conflict we have seen in the past.

It was relatively limited. There was no loss of life on the Israeli side. And it was relatively brief — just some 48 hours.

And yet this round of hostilities between Israel and Islamic Jihad may come to represent a real shift when it comes to the relationship between Israel and Hamas regarding the Gaza Strip.

On Tuesday morning, immediately after Israel eliminated the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group commander Baha Abu al-Ata, and given that Islamic Jihad was firing rockets as far into Israel as the Tel Aviv and central Dan region, it was reasonable to believe that we could be heading toward a dramatic deterioration between Israel and Hamas-run Gaza.

Israeli firefighters battle a blaze at a factory in Sderot, southern Israel, hit by a rocket fired from Gaza, on November 12, 2019 (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

But by Thursday morning, the situation was radically altered, and one could discern indications of cooperation between Israel and Hamas. Such a relationship, such an “alliance,” is unprecedented between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers. And it may turn out to pave the path to still wider quiet and secret cooperation.

The events from Tuesday to Thursday were primarily marked by two unique, even potentially historic, characteristics:

1. For the first time, the State of Israel and its security forces distinguished clearly between Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Previously when Islamic Jihad fired at Israel, in attacks orchestrated by Abu al-Ata or others, Israel responded by attacking Hamas targets. The Netanyahu government announced time and again that it regarded Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar as responsible for every escalation and every security development originating from the Gaza Strip,which they control.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (2L) with military chiefs in Tel Aviv. November 12, 2019 (Haim Tzach/GPO)

This week, however, for the first time since Hamas seized control of Gaza from Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction in 2007, Israel took the opposite line. It distinguished clearly between Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

As the rockets rained down on Israel, the IDF attacked only Islamic Jihad targets and Islamic Jihad personnel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his new defense minister Naftali Bennett, and all the other senior government figures — many of whom have spoken out often about Hamas’s overall responsibility for whatever happens in the Gaza Strip — were essentially acknowledging what amounted to a partnership with Haniyeh and Sinwar with regards to security relating to the Gaza Strip — practically “brothers in arms” when facing the threat posed by Islamic Jihad.

2.) Hamas refused to enter the fighting.

The Hamas decision to stay out of this round constitutes no less dramatic and potentially historic a development when it comes to Israel, Hamas, and the relationships between the various terrorist organizations in Gaza.

Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar in Gaza City, June 26, 2019. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)

If there is one thing that Hamas finds intolerable, it is when people draw a comparison between it and Abbas’s Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. But it is very difficult to avoid drawing that comparison.

At the start of the Second Intifada’s onslaught of suicide bombings and other terror attacks, when Hamas would attack Israeli targets, Israel would hit back at the Palestinian Authority as the power with overall responsibility. The PA would find it difficult to act against Hamas, and the destructive cycle would continue and escalate. In the recent past, we have seen a similar model play out in the Gaza Strip: Islamic Jihad would attack Israeli targets, partly in order to complicate life for Hamas. Israel would hit back at Hamas, and Hamas would then get involved, sometimes.

This time, it would appear that the rulers of the Strip were only too happy about Israel’s elimination of serial troublemaker Abu al-Ata. They refrained from any armed response, and even their anti-Israel declarations sounded unusually mild.

It almost seemed at some points as though they regarded the Abu al-Ata incident as part of a fight between clans in which it had no part: Abu al-Ata had been eliminated; now his “family,” Islamic Jihad, was avenging his death. Not Hamas.

An Israeli family shelters from Gaza rocket fire inside a bomb shelter in the coastal city of Ashkelon, Israel, November 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

There are several reasons for Hamas’s uncharacteristic behavior. The group recognizes that it has a real opportunity at the moment, not only to stabilize the situation in Gaza without the permanent threat posed by Abu al-Ata but also to head into Palestinian general elections, facing off against the Palestinian Authority, and win.

It may well be that some of Hamas’s rivals, including Islamic Jihad and Fatah, will mock the organization and accuse it of having turned into a kind of Palestinian Authority, afraid of confrontation with Israel. But from Hamas’s point of view, the benefits of its decision not to join in this round of fighting far outweigh the drawbacks.

Abu al-Ata was a bone in the throat of Hamas, Egypt, and even the Islamic Jihad leadership in Damascus, which ultimately agreed to a ceasefire without any achievements. It was convenient for Hamas to allow Islamic Jihad to face off alone against the IDF this time.

In this photo taken on October 21, 2016, Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror leader Baha Abu al-Ata attends a rally in Gaza City. (STR/AFP)

And so Hamas, an extremist, dangerous Islamist terrorist organization that relentlessly proclaims its aim to destroy the State of Israel, showed uncharacteristic pragmatism — showed, indeed, that it was prepared to ignore 34 fatalities in Gaza, since almost all of them were members of Islamic Jihad.

None of this is to say that Hamas and Israel will cooperate from here to eternity. Nor that the leopard has changed its spots. Hamas’s ongoing efforts to orchestrate terrorist attacks from the West Bank will continue as usual.

But this most recent escalation from Gaza, and the ceasefire that is now taking effect, bring with them a rather different reality. They might, just might, open the path to at least a longer period of calm when it comes to the Gaza Strip.

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