Islamic Jihad Will Have Trouble Ignoring Israeli Strike on Gaza Attack Tunnel, Senior IDF Officer Says

Islamic Jihad is caught between Hamas' interest in restraint and Iran's desire to undermine Palestinian reconciliation efforts, Israeli army officer warns

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Mourner reacts as Islamic Jihad militants in Gaza hold their weapon at comrades' funeral.
A mourner reacts as Islamic Jihad militants in Gaza hold their weapons during the funeral of comrades killed in an Israeli operation to blow up a border tunnel, Oct. 31, 2017.Credit: Mohammed Abed / AFP

A senior officer in the Israeli army’s Southern Command said Wednesday that it would be difficult for Islamic Jihad to restrain itself and not retaliate after Israel blew up the attack tunnel on the Gaza border on Monday.

The officer said the IDF knows of a total of 14 people killed in the incident, five of them operatives who worked in the tunnels and nine rescuers who came to the site and died either because the tunnel collapsed or from inhaling smoke from the explosives.

“I think they will have hard time showing restraint, and it could be that they’ve already decided on the nature of their response,” the officer said. “They find themselves in a dilemma. They face restraints from Hamas, which wants the reconciliation [with Fatah], but on the other hand, they have their own agenda and are directed by Iran. I do not rule out the possibility that the Iranians, who influence Islamic Jihad, will try to exploit the response to the incident to undermine the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.”

Nevertheless, the army’s assessment is that, if there is a reaction to the destruction of the tunnel, its won’t be on a scale that will lead to an escalation, the officer said, adding that Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, isn’t interested in a confrontation now and won’t allow Islamic Jihad to “run wild.”

“From what we can see, right now all the organizations in Gaza are committed to reconciliation and [Hamas leader] Yahya Sinwar is managing to control them and hold them together, except for the Salafists who see Hamas as a rival,” he said, referring to members of a highly conservative branch of Sunni Islam.

Still, the officer said, Hamas is playing both sides. “Hamas is trying to dance at all the weddings,” he said. “On the one hand, the reconciliation is very important to it, but on the other hand, there’s the embrace and assistance from Iran. At this point, the reconciliation doesn’t portend only things that are good for us.” According to the officer, Islamic Jihad has dozens of missiles that have a range of over 42 kilometers (26 miles) and another few hundred short-range ones that it could use if the group chooses to respond to the destruction of the tunnel.

Another senior Israel Defense Forces officer told reporters that the army’s response, which isn’t to “celebrate” its achievement, is a measured reaction aimed at putting Hamas in a dilemma about how to respond. The dead Palestinians, he noted, were “a brigade commander, a deputy brigade commander and a commander in the Hamas naval force. Three of the dead are people that I hadn't managed to killing during Operation Protective Edge,” he said, referring to the war that Israel fought against Hamas and its allies in Gaza in 2014.

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