Hamas officials say the organization could join the current fighting between Israel and Islamic Jihad if Israel does not soften its overall hard line on Gaza and show the people there that Hamas has chalked up achievements.
On Wednesday, Gaza factions launched massive rocket barrages at Israel for the second straight day, a day after Israel assassinated a top Islamic Jihad commander, Baha Abu al-Bata.
In addition to Abu al-Bata and his wife, 21 Palestinians, including one Islamic Jihad field commander, have been killed and at least 69 wounded in Israeli strikes over the two days.
Hamas targets have not been hit, and Israeli officials say they do not want the group, which rules Gaza, to enter the fighting. But Hamas is letting Islamic Jihad react to the killing of Abu al-Ata.
“Hamas does not want total war or for the fighting to last more than a few days,” a Hamas spokesman said. “If a concrete proposal including relief of the blockade and a significant improvement for civilians is made, we can demand that Islamic Jihad restrain its fire.”
But he said that if there is a situation of “continuing attacks on infrastructure and civilians, we will have to head for a more serious escalation.”
- While at war with Islamic Jihad, Israel is almost in talks with Hamas
- Hamas is, for now, the only responsible adult in the Israel-Gaza conflict
- As a day of violence unfolds, Gazans and Israelis near the Strip gird for escalation
The closure that Israel and Egypt have imposed on the enclave helped produce an unemployment rate of 52 percent last year.
A Hamas political leader told Haaretz that for now, Hamas’ military wing is only advising Islamic Jihad; there is even a joint operations room. If the military wing joins the fighting, “it will be felt,” he said.
An official at the joint operations room said the “reaction to the Israeli aggression will continue and we will teach Israel a lesson that it won’t forget. We won’t accept new rules of the game and won’t accept the policy of targeted assassination.”
Talal Abu Zarifa, a senior official with the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told Haaretz that the lull in the rocket fire Tuesday night was no coincidence, it arose from cease-fire talks with mediators including Egyptian intelligence officials, UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov and Qatari officials.
But an Islamic Jihad spokesman said that now wasn’t the time to talk about brokering solutions. “Once we finish delivering the message to Israel, we can talk about quiet,” he said.
A former Palestinian Authority official living in the enclave says Hamas leaders will be telling their Islamic Jihad counterparts that if they don’t calm things down, they will find themselves alone on the battlefield.
“Sometimes responsibility for a civilian population requires conduct that seems like restraint,” he said.
On Tuesday, Israeli defense officials said they also believed that Hamas did not want an escalation, but that this could change if Israeli airstrikes caused heavy civilian casualties. Also, certain Hamas members could decide to operate on their own.
In recent months, defense officials have voiced the belief that Hamas does not seek an escalation; instead, successful negotiations with Israel over temporary arrangements consolidate its power in Gaza.
But defense officials believe that Hamas has lost some of its influence among Gazans relative to Islamic Jihad and other groups, and that a weakening of Islamic Jihad would strengthen the Hamas government and improve the chance of achieving calm.
“We realize that we’re walking a tightrope and don’t want to create a situation of heavy casualties among people who aren’t involved, which could bring Hamas into the fight,” a military spokesman said Wednesday.
“We’re contending with each organization separately to get Hamas and Islamic Jihad to understand who we’re serious about and who is sabotaging the efforts to reach an arrangement.”