With Gaza flaring up, the trail leads to Iran

Islamic Jihad has been drawing closer to Tehran, and it will continue to challenge Hamas’s authority in the Strip

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.

Islamic Jihad militants in the Rafah Refugee Camp, southern Gaza Strip.  (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Islamic Jihad militants in the Rafah Refugee Camp, southern Gaza Strip. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Let’s start with the good news: As of Thursday morning, it appears as if the parties involved in the fighting along the Israel-Gaza border, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have calmed down. Israeli strikes Wednesday focused solely on targeting unmanned rocket launch sites. In other words, there were no Palestinian casualties in any of the 29 strikes.

Islamic Jihad stopped firing at Israel in the early evening hours of Wednesday. And while two lone rockets were fired overnight, as well as a few more Thursday morning, compared to Wednesday’s barrage it seems that the militant organization is signaling that is does not desire any further escalation.

But here is the not-so-good news. Although Hamas has exhibited impressive control of the situation in the Gaza Strip in recent years, the last sequence of events indicates that its power is no longer what it once was.

Moreover, and for the umpteenth time, Israelis received further evidence of the damaging implications internal Palestinian politics can have on Israel.

Islamic Jihad’s actions, as well as statements made by its spokesman afterwards, lead to the obvious conclusion that the organization is challenging Hamas and trying to market itself as the new leader of the Gaza Strip. It started a day beforehand, when Islamic Jihad sent its operatives to confront IDF forces near Khan Younis. During the exchange of fire, where three Palestinians were killed, Hamas stood on the sidelines and did not intervene. That same day, two more Palestinians were killed in the West Bank, and Hamas and the Palestinian Authority similarly refrained from responding — prompting Islamic Jihad’s rocket salvo on Wednesday.

Arguably the culmination of its challenge to the status quo arrived overnight, when Islamic Jihad published a statement warning the residents of Gaza that it would act against anyone suspected of collaborating with Israel. So now, Islamic Jihad, not Hamas, is punishing alleged collaborators with the Jewish state.

Islamic Jihad’s Secretary General Ramadan Shalah gave a telling interview Wednesday on Iranian TV, saying that the response of the organization would expand and become much harsher if Israel continued its actions against the Palestinians.

The message is familiar and predictable. However, Shalah’s decision to go on air in Iran suggests that Islamic Jihad is operating against Hamas’s interests under the guidance and encouragement of the Islamic Republic. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are trying to strengthen Islamic Jihad (see: Kloc-C arms shipment) and build up its military capabilities in order to weaken Hamas, as a form of punishment to the Gaza-ruling party for participating in the fight against the Assad regime in Syria.

It now seems reasonable to assume that Iran will continue to try to undermine the relative calm in the region, either through Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip to the south, or Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Golan Heights to the north.

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