Islamic Jihad doesn’t want to rain on the reconciliation parade

Pressure from Hamas and Egypt holds terror group back from retaliating for Israel’s destruction of its Gaza attack tunnel and the deaths of its men

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 terrorists from the Islamic Jihad group attend the funeral of comrades killed in an Israeli operation to blow up a tunnel stretching from the Gaza Strip into Israel, during their funeral at the Bureij refugee camp, in central Gaza, on October 31, 2017 (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)
Palestinian terrorists from the Islamic Jihad group attend the funeral of comrades killed in an Israeli operation to blow up a tunnel stretching from the Gaza Strip into Israel, during their funeral at the Bureij refugee camp, in central Gaza, on October 31, 2017 (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

At first blush, Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s decision to hold off on retaliating for Israel’s destruction of its cross-border attack tunnel may seem surprising.

The tunnel, stretching from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory, was blown up by the IDF on Monday, resulting in the deaths of at least seven Palestinian terrorists, including two senior commanders, and 12 injured men, the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry said, in the deadliest incident in the coastal enclave since the 2014 Gaza war.

How can an extremist terror group, which is reliant on Iranian support, not respond to the killing of its fighters? One would have at the very least expected Islamic Jihad to fire a few rockets into Israel to let off some steam and send a message to the people of Gaza.

Yet, when one takes into account upcoming developments in the Gaza Strip and the pressure Hamas is putting on Islamic Jihad, the decision to hold back seems almost reasonable for the terror group.

Transfer of power

On Tuesday, a delegation of Egyptian officials was due to visit the Strip, along with officials from the European Union and representatives of banks in the West Bank.

The big event is scheduled for Wednesday: the official transfer of control, including over the collection of duties and customs, at the Kerem Shalom and Rafah border crossings from Hamas to the Palestinian Authority — the first concrete step in the rapprochement agreement between rival factions Hamas and Fatah.

A truck loaded with goods enters the Gaza Strip from Israel through the Kerem Shalom crossing in the southern Gaza Strip, March 15, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Though the transfer of power is not particularly dramatic, since PA forces are already running the two crossings, the symbolic gesture to a certain extent signals a new era in Gaza, ending 10 years of division between the Strip and the West Bank.

Hamas will also remove the roadblocks it had erected some 100 meters from Kerem Shalom and one kilometer from Erez. Until now, the terror group has forced trucks entering from Israel through Kerem Shalom to pay taxes on the goods being transported, while people entering or leaving the Strip through Erez were questioned by Hamas operatives to establish what they did in Israel or the West Bank, and what connections they may have to Israeli security forces. Hamas also had a network in place at the border crossings to uncover suspected collaborators or to put its own spies into action as they headed out to Israel or the West Bank.

The fact that Hamas is prepared to give up these checkpoints is a serious step with important implications for internal Palestinian reconciliation.

This is why Hamas told Islamic Jihad not to rain on its celebrations.

Egypt reins in the terrorists

Sources in Egypt, the architect of the rapprochement deal, spoke more than once with senior Hamas officials in the Strip in the wake of the tunnel’s destruction. The warm connection between the two sides helped Cairo drive home the importance of restraining Islamic Jihad.

Palestinians chant slogans during a protest against the ongoing electricity crisis in Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on January 12, 2017. (AFP / MOHAMMED ABED)

Islamic Jihad, of course, could have ignored the requests from Hamas and Egypt, but it knows that the people of Gaza put reconciliation and improving their economic situation above all other interests.

Gazans would never had forgiven them for destroying the unity deal between Fatah and Hamas.

It is hard to say how long Islamic Jihad will hold back. There may be limited actions against Israeli forces, particularly if the decision is made independently by operatives in the field. But the heads of Islamic Jihad understand clearly which way the wind is blowing.

Residents of the Gaza Strip who spoke Tuesday morning with The Times of Israel said that the explosion was inside Israeli territory and was not intended to cause massive loss of life. They were echoing an IDF talking point — the target was the tunnel, not the terrorists inside of it — that drew harsh criticism from the right, with Education Minister Naftali Bennett interpreting it as an “apology.”

Loath to go against public opinion in the Strip, it seems Islamic Jihad’s leaders got the message too.

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