It’s not a war yet in Gaza. Despite the higher-than-usual number of mortar rounds fired by Islamic Jihad and the backing it has received from Hamas, Islamic Jihad prefers to define the mortar firing as revenge for the killing of three of its operatives by the Israeli military. In other words, as a localized event, rather than the opening of a new front and the disruption of the hard-won 2014 agreement between Hamas, Egypt and Israel at the end of Operation Protective Edge.
Israel is the party directly harmed by this act of revenge but Hamas cannot disregard the challenge posed by its sister organization. For if Islamic Jihad cannot control itself and cannot refrain from avenging the killing of three of its members, what does this say about Hamas, which has shown restraint in the face of the deaths of 50 of its people in the demonstrations and marches held over the last six weeks? The thing is that Islamic Jihad members also took part in these demonstrations and its leaders decided to embrace the Hamas strategy of not responding to the killings. Has Islamic Jihad decided on settling scores with Israel, thereby compelling Hamas to do the same? Not just yet. Until now Hamas has made due with offering supportive declarations on behalf of Islamic Jihad, but it has not yet pulled the trigger.
Hamas views Islamic Jihad’s actions as violating the rules which have governed the conduct of the two groups since the start of the internal Palestinian reconciliation process, in particular, the rules - dictated by Egypt since it has assumed control of the talks - concerning conduct towards Israel. When an Islamic Jihad delegation visited Egypt in March and met the heads of Egypt’s intelligence services, it clarified that the organization opposes any attack against Egypt and that it would back Hamas’ commitment to defend the Egyptian–Gaza border from infiltration by terrorists and the smuggling of war materiel. Islamic Jihad sees eye to eye with Hamas regarding reconciliation with Fatah and the need to maintain good relations with Egypt, which requires, among other things, strictly abiding by the cease-fire with Israel.
However, the waters are not placid within the ranks of the Islamic Jihad. Its leader Ramadan Shalah is non-functional following repeated cardiac surgery in Beirut (supervised by Iranian doctors). He lost consciousness in April, which gave rise to rumors that he’d been poisoned. His deputy, Ziyad al-Nakhalah has been the stand-in leader since then. He is considered to be loyal to Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, which is giving some financial support to Islamic Jihad. Iran wants al-Nakhalah to replace Shalah and has let the organization know this. However, there are senior members of the organization such as Mohammed al-Hindi, another Shalah deputy, who prefer ties with Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood over ties with Iran.
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Last April the organization made preparations for elections for its leadership and for formulating a new constitution. The elections were postponed, apparently due to Iranian pressure, out of concern that al-Hindi would be elected rather not Tehran’s ally, the 67-year-old al-Nakhalah. There is no new date for elections and internal rivalries continue to dictate the strategy to be pursued in conflicts such as the current one with Israel.
Although Israel views the organization as an Iranian proxy in Gaza, some members of Islamic Jihad view Iran with deep distrust, particularly after the establishment of the Sabirun (“the patient ones”) faction, which broke away from Jihad in 2014 at the urging of Iran, which then funded the new group to the tune of (an estimated) $12 million a year. Senior Islamic Jihad members saw this as a serious blow to the group’s unity, especially when a year later Iran froze its annual financial support of the organization. Some of the funding has since been restored but this has not allayed suspicions regarding Iran.
Iran’s involvement also angers Salafist groups in Gaza who worry about Shi’ite influence there. Even if these groups occasionally challenge Hamas, sometimes firing into Israel, they support Hamas’ disengagement from Iran and back the anti-Iranian elements in Islamic Jihad. Thus, it’s possible that the military action undertaken by Islamic Jihad against Israel is related to internal divisions within the group and not just to turf wars with Hamas.
As in earlier rounds, Egypt invited itself this week to serve as a mediator between Israel, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in order to bring calm to the area. Egypt is trying to promote inter-Palestinian reconciliation and is maintaining tight ties with both Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Its main leverage is its control over the Rafah border crossing, which it opened in honor of the month of Ramadan.
For Egypt the reconciliation is not an objective in itself but a means of controlling who succeeds Mahmoud Abbas, in order to have influence over all the internal processes which will follow the succession. Without the cooperation of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Egypt will find it difficult to dictate political moves and to have any sway on the future leadership of Palestine. Egyptian leverage stems from its close military collaboration with Israel, which determines the scope of hostilities along the border.
It is now in Israel’s interest to help Egypt attain calm, thereby reinforcing Cairo’s influence not only in Gaza but in the West Bank as well. The problem is that Israel views the confrontation with Islamic Jihad and Hamas not just as a means to punish and deter but also as a means to enhance its own prestige. This may override any rational considerations.