Analysis

Islamic Jihad Strikes Netanyahu's Soft Spot a Week Before Israel's Election

The last thing embattled Netanyahu needs is a violent conflict in Gaza. Paradoxically, hitting the Islamic Jihad's No. 2 in Syria is less sensitive than bombing the Strip

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A Palestinian militant carries chairs as he surveys an Islamic Jihad site that was targeted in an Israeli air strike in the southern Gaza Strip, February 24, 2020
A Palestinian militant carries chairs as he surveys an Islamic Jihad site that was targeted in an Israeli air strike in the southern Gaza Strip, February 24, 2020Credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

A week before the election, an unholy triumvirate kicked into action: The last stage of political campaigning; dread at the arrival of coronavirus in Israel; and the ritual of escalation in Gaza. We can assume that's where the headlines will stay until election day itself.

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Israel didn't seek escalation in Gaza. On the contrary, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered the crucial stage of the battle for his political life, it seems the last thing he needed was a violent eruption in the Strip. All the internal polls the Likud is having done indicate that Gaza is his Achilles' heel. Swing voters aren't giving the government high scores for its handling of Hamas. An uncontrolled upsurge at this time could actually hurt Netanyahu's chances more than it would help him.

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On the other hand, Netanyahu can't just sit tight as dozens of rockets are launched at Gaza border communities. The escalation on Sunday followed an incident by the border in the morning, when an Israeli force identified an Islamic Jihad unit trying to lay a bomb by the fence. The Israeli force opened fire and one member of the unit was killed. A second one escaped but was wounded.

Men trying to collect a body as a bulldozer approaches them, along the Gaza-Israel border, east of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 23, 2020
Men trying to collect a body as a bulldozer approaches them, along the Gaza-Israel border, east of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 23, 2020Credit: AFP

Islamic Jihad would have been likely to react to its member's death in any case, in keeping with the formula created months ago by its leaders in Gaza. But the reaction was apparently intensified because of images of the incident that were disseminated, showing an Israeli army bulldozer dragging the body of the Palestinian into Israeli territory. The clips went viral and fanned the fires of rage in Gaza. The retaliatory rocket fire was unusually intense, again begging questions about the wisdom of the new policy to accrue the corpses of armed Palestinians as a possible bargaining chip in negotiations to regain the bodies of Israeli soldiers.

This time, in contrast to its wont, Israel didn't accuse Hamas of responsibility for the rocket attacks, but focused in its response on Islamic Jihad. Among the targets, there were the usual command centers in Gaza (and it seems the Israeli army has returned to its poor practice of inflating the dimensions of the bombing), but there also was an innovation. A site producing weapons for Islamic Jihad in Syria south of Damascus was also attacked.

The Israeli move was designed to signal to Islamic Jihad that it had gone too far, and to convey to the Israeli public that the government isn't indifferent to the suffering of the people in southern Israel. In effect, paradoxically perhaps, Syria is now a slightly less sensitive front than Gaza. As long as the attacks target a facility run by a Palestinian organization and not Iranian military presence in Syria, the Syrian hosts can restrain themselves.

There may have been another consideration when choosing a target in Syria. Militants in Gaza maintain close contact with the organization command in Damascus - and Islamic Jihad's No. 2, Akram Al-Ajouri, lives in Damascus. Last November, when Israel assassinated senior Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata, Islamic Jihad claimed that Israeli strikes aimed to take out Ajouri, bombing his residence and killing one of his sons.

Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, February 20, 2020
Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, February 20, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Islamic Jihad's incessant attempts to thwart any arrangement between Hamas and Israel in Gaza is related to power struggles between the two organizations, and to Islamic Jihad's ideological opposition to an arrangement. But Iran's influence on Gaza, through the command center in Damascus, may also be in play. Constant friction in the Strip serves Tehran well, and if it bothers its old enemy Netanyahu too, that's a cherry on top from its perspective. In any case, the persistence of incidents with the Islamic Jihad attests that Israeli intelligence may have ascribed too much personal importance to Ata. His organization continues to pursue military operations after he, the top commander, was eliminated.

As the third election campaign nears its end, Gaza is yet again casting its long shadow on the Israeli political arena. As far as the army's steps along the Israel-Gaza border since Sunday night can be assessed, deployment seems to be mainly defensive. That is also the impression garnered from the government's moves regarding Gaza in recent months.

However, things can go askew very fast, and sensitive political times demand special attention to the decisions made at the top political and military echelons. Under similar circumstances, ahead of the second election in September, Netanyahu pressed on the Israeli army to broadly attack Gaza, and was only blocked by the direct intervention of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. Gaza isn't at the center of the election but events there could well affect the results, if the escalation continues.

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