Analysis

While at War With Islamic Jihad, Israel Is Almost in Talks With Hamas

Hamas seems more interested in striking a longer-term deal with Israel than joining Islamic Jihad’s rocket attacks, but that could change if the number of Palestinian casualties rises

Palestinian men watching as smoke billows during an Israeli airstrike on Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, November 13, 2019.
AFP

Hamas has so far refrained from joining the Palestinian Islamic Jihad's rocket fire on Israel, which began Tuesday morning following the assassination of one of the latter organization’s senior commanders, Baha Abu al-Ata. That is the main aspect currently shaping the flare-up. Without Hamas — and following the hit on a crucial component in its chain of command — the reaction of the smaller of the two organizations may be large in scale but, for the time being, hasn’t been particularly effective. As usual, everything depends on the damage wrought by isolated rockets. But as of midday Wednesday, the escalation has not spiraled completely out of control.

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Hamas is far from being a collaborator with Israel. It has its own interests, and these apparently dictate that the calm be preserved based on its desire of achieving an longer-term arrangement, accompanied by cash injections from Qatar and the easing of restraints on movement to Egypt and Israel.

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As long as Hamas itself suffers no losses and there are no massive casualties among the Palestinian population at large, the organization seemingly doesn’t feel it is incumbent on it to react. On the other hand, it isn’t trying to restrain Islamic Jihad. But without the logistical and operational cooperation of Hamas, Islamic Jihad has so far proven unable to deliver a real blow to Israel.

We have to assume that it has the motivation. According to Gaza’s Health Ministry, 21 Palestinians have been killed since Tuesday — most of them members of Islamic Jihad. The movement will probably continue to try to exact revenge, whether through rocket barrages at unexpected times or an awe-evoking attack such as firing anti-tank missiles, a sniper ambush or infiltrating Israel.

Since Tuesday night, the Israeli army has marked up operational successes after a long dry spell: it has damaged the Islamic Jihad’s rocket-launching units. This is an important layer on top of the impressive one supplied by the Iron Dome missile defense system (which has intercepted more than 90 percent of Palestinian rockets in urban areas). The lingering question, always without a clear answer, is to what degree a high number of Palestinian casualties deters the organizations and when mass funerals drive Islamic Jihad (and, more dangerously, Hamas) into escalating the rocket fire.

Abu al-Ata had commanded the northern division of the Islamic Jihad’s military wing in Gaza and was described as a key obstacle to any arrangement in the Strip because he insisted on firing rockets at Israeli targets every few weeks. Hamas’ failure to respond so far could show that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the organization’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, understand each other pretty well.

In contrast to the days preceding Operation Protective Edge in July 2014 and that summer’s operation itself, which were characterized by mutual misunderstanding and a series of miscalculations on both sides that led to the escalation, now there is a mediation system that works quite well. Israel and Hamas are used to sending messages to each other — both during the periodic flare-ups and the ongoing, tense Friday protests along the Israel-Gaza border — by means of mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations.

On Wednesday morning, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan presented matters a tad crudely on Kan Radio. Abu al-Ata, he said, was assassinated because of “his responsibility for firing rockets and because he was a hindrance to the arrangement negotiations with Hamas.”

Hence the Israeli army’s unusual conduct over the past two days. In recent years, every time the Islamic Jihad or “unruly” members opened fire, Israel smote Hamas, arguing that it was the only responsible party in the Strip. This time, the message is the opposite: The army is carefully trying to target only Islamic Jihad and its operatives.

IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Hidai Zilberman even stressed, when talking with the press Wednesday morning, the wish to limit collateral damage. “We won’t demolish five- or six-story buildings in the heart of Gaza,” he said. “We understand we’re walking a tightrope. We attacked only Islamic Jihad without harming people who aren’t involved. We have other Islamic Jihad targets we can attack if necessary.”

The consideration isn’t just one of values but what is advantageous. There is an assessment that Hamas could choose to stay on the fence as long as the civilian population remains outside the conflict arena.

What Zilberman didn’t say outright, but is pretty clear from observing events, is that the army isn’t pushing for a ground operation in Gaza. In fact, the army seems to be trying to do everything possible to end the current conflict quickly. But developments don’t depend just on Hamas’ restraint or a direct hit from an isolated rocket. They also depend on Netanyahu’s position.

For now, matters are working well for the prime minister. On the military front, Abu al-Ata was “neutralized” and maybe progress can be made on the arrangement with Hamas. On the political front, against the backdrop of the military friction, the idea of a Kahol Lavan minority government may be dead, somewhat strengthening the possibility of an accelerated negotiation between Benny Gantz’s party and Netanyahu’s Likud. The question is whether Netanyahu will aim to wrap it up soon or whether he thinks that continuing to fight in Gaza, at a limited intensity, continues to serve his purpose.

There is no doubt that there were operational considerations behind targeting the Islamic Jihad leader, as Israel’s chief of staff and the Shin Bet security service chief openly admitted. But the assumption that there is total separation between security considerations and the sensitive political reality, as some TV commentators stubbornly insist, just doesn’t make sense. Netanyahu would have to be a saint in order not to factor in those considerations, as the final stage of the complicated government coalition talks approaches, and ahead of the decision whether to file three indictments against him. The military discussion is not divorced from the political background.