Opinion |

Will Iran Push Gaza's Islamic Jihad to Fight Its War With Israel?

Iran is doubling down on its explosive investment in Gaza: Islamic Jihad. An impoverished Hamas faces a militant, rejectionist and increasingly untamable rival, flush with cash and determined to trigger war with Israel

Muhammad Shehada
Muhammad Shehada
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Islamic Jihad militants attend the funeral of Palestinian Jehad Hararah who was killed at the Israeli-Gaza border fence, in Gaza City. March 23, 2019
Islamic Jihad militants attend the funeral of Palestinian Jehad Hararah who was killed at the Israeli-Gaza border fence, in Gaza City. March 23, 2019Credit: \ MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS
Muhammad Shehada
Muhammad Shehada

This piece was originally published on March 28, 2019.

As the dust settles after the last week of escalation between Israel and Gaza, neither Hamas nor Netanyahu have managed to score a substantial victory or breakthrough. However, another political faction in Gaza is steadily ascending to stardom on the back of those latest events: Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Although some local commentators, and Hamas itself, have suggested the rocket launched at Tel Aviv last Monday that triggered this round was an accident, Islamic Jihad refused to disclaim the rocket attack, instead opting to aggravate the situation in the hope of making political capital. Its newly appointed leader, Ziad Nakhala, declared: "We will respond harshly" if Israel retaliated.

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As the Israeli bombardment of Gaza was nearing, the Egyptian intelligence conveyed a message to Hamas that Israel’s retaliation wouldn't be serious if militant groups in Gaza didn't respond to Israel's first round of airstrikes. They warned that firing more projectiles on Israel would likely ignite a war.

An emergency responder inspecting a damaged house after it was hit by a rocket fired from Gaza in the village of Mishmeret, north of Tel Aviv on March 25, 2019Credit: AFP

Hamas got the message and bit its tongue. But again Islamic Jihad abandoned Gaza's factional consensus and launched a barrage of primitive projectiles on Israel’s south that it filmed with great delight and almost instantly released to the public.

This certainly wasn’t the first time the Islamic Jihad knowingly embarrassed Hamas and decidedly challenged its red lines at the risk of blowing everything up in Gaza. Two weeks previously, two similar primitive projectiles were also "accidentally" launched on Tel Aviv by Hamas members. The latter, being keen to maintain its indirect negotiations for cease-fire with Israel undisturbed, not only apologized for the incident immediately, but also arrested those of its own operatives it considered responsible.

Islamic Jihad wasted no time, and issued an statement intending to intimidate: "Despite the Egyptian efforts…we raise our readiness and state of alert to fight against the occupation."

Hamas leader Musa Abu Marzouq publicly denounced the IJ’s "escalatory statement" and called out its "politicized rockets" that "must be stopped." That came after top Hamas leader Ismael Haniya met with Nakhala a few weeks before in Cairo, and asked him to respect the cease-fire arrangements in Gaza, in the wake of Islamic Jihad launching two projectiles on Israel during the same month to retaliate against Israeli airstrikes in Syria that hit Iranian targets.

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh visits his office that was targeted in an Israeli air strike, in Gaza City March 27, 2019Credit: \ HANDOUT/ REUTERS

This one-upmanship between Hamas - determined to assert rigid control over Gaza - and Islamic Jihad - determined to disobey and defy orders -follows a clear pattern that has been forming ever since the mediated talks between Israel and Hamas had begun to bear limited fruit: Israel had allowed the physical transfer of cash from Qatar to fund Hamas employees, and allowed fuel to enter the besieged enclave.

That tension is built-in to the wildly diverging ideologies espoused by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Hamas is an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood school of thought, Islamic Jihad embraces the Islamic revolution of Iran.

Hamas believes in the importance of the PLO and is desperate to wrest the Palestinian Authority out of Fatah’s control; Islamic Jihad doesn’t recognize the PLO at all as the sole representative of the Palestinian people, rejects the Palestinian Authority and the peace process, and rejects Hamas’ pursuit of a permanent cease-fire in Gaza.

As former IJ leader Ramadan Shalah stated, such a ceasefire would "exclude Gaza from the conflict and boost Israel’s efforts to swallow the West Bank undisrupted."

Both armed groups have managed to coexist, and even operating from the same command and control room ( the "Palestinian factions' operation room") for more than a decade, by sharing the privileges of dominating Gaza's ruling class.

Members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement march during a military parade, Gaza City, Gaza, October 4, 2018.Credit: AFP

They co-operate according to a quid pro quo. In return for compliance, cooperation and support, Hamas granted Islamic Jihad personnel a superior status over the rest of Gaza’s population, including putting IJ leaders above the law, and allowing their movement to operate, recruit and parade freely and develop its military capacity unconstrained.

As a result, both groups have endeavored to act in consensus in regard to decisions to confront Israel, though Hamas retained superior power and dominance over Islamic Jihad. This balance was maintained thanks to the relatively moderate leadership of Ramadan Shalah.

However, this all changed when Shalah suddenly went AWOL from the political scene in April 2018, and was succeeded by an uneducated, stubborn and militaristic leader, Ziad Nakhallah, best known for pledging blind and eternal loyalty to Iran, and in particular to the Revolutionary Gurads' Quds Force.

Nakhallah has speeded up the transformation of his group into a more or less an Iranian proxy, operated by an on/off switch by Tehran to stir up trouble in Gaza whenever Iran needs to create a distraction, retaliation or send a message.

In recent months, Iran has expressed its disapproval of a possible long-term Hamas-Israeli cease-fire. That's not a scenario that plays to Tehran's interests: An Israel that no longer needs to deal with Gaza would allow it more time, energy and resources to fight the Iranian presence in Syria.

A ball of fire billows above buildings in Gaza City during reported Israeli strikes on March 25, 2019Credit: AFP

Its wholehearted opposition to both Palestinian reconciliation and to an Israeli-Hamas truce has meant that Iran’s embrace of Hamas has loosened. That led Tehran no option but to inflate Islamic Jihad to the point where it would engage in a battle of equal strength with Hamas. That boost is intended to push Islamic Jihad towards stealing the right to decide about war or peace away from Hamas.

While Iran's financial support for Hamas has dramatically decreased over the last decade, its support to the Islamic Jihad has dramatically increased, to an almost insane extent.

Hamas militants haven't received any salaries for several months, thanks to the movement's financial hardships. The movement now relies almost purely on funding generated from taxes and smuggling tunnel revenue. In contrast, Islamic Jihad is so flush with cash that it handed out increases to the $250 monthly stipends of its members.

This has evoked so much jealousy inside Hamas that a few of its young members have even defected to join Islamic Jihad for the superior financial comfort it offers.

As Islamic Jihad thrives financially, the longstanding status quo with Hamas is breaking down. Hamas is used to buying Islamic Jihad's compliance – but that's no longer paying off. In other words, Islamic Jihad is becoming increasingly untamable.

Joining forces with Hamas, and fueled by concern about Islamic Jihad's unpredictability, Egypt is exerting enormous pressure on the Islamic Jihad for it to step back into line. For now, that seems like an unattainable goal. Islamic Jihad is running to exploit every opportunity, big or small, to keep Gaza on track to another war against Israel.

Islamic Jihad's leaders, and their puppet-masters in Tehran, still think that's the best chance they have of shaking up the cosy Hamas-Israel status quo and to forcibly liberate Gaza from the blockade, while proudly and uncompromisingly replacing Hamas as the vanguard of the Palestinian "armed resistance."

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2

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