Islamic Jihad personnel in Gaza received a green light from their top leaders in Damascus to retaliate to Israel’s attack on one of their main tunnels, which led to the death of several leaders in the movement’s armed 'Saraya al-Quds' wing. Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders in Gaza, however, are convinced that now isn’t the time for a direct conflict with Israel that would bring more devastation to the besieged Gaza Strip.
Hamas has numerous reasons to prevent a retaliation against Israel, not least popular pressure against escalation in the middle of the historic, yet extremely delicate, process of Palestinian reconciliation. Hamas’ Gaza chief, Yahia al-Sinwar, is deeply invested in its success.
In addition, the current status quo provides both Hamas and Israel with the deterrence equation both parties want to maintain. Israel deems Hamas the ‘devil we know’, far preferable than the only potential successors - anarchist jihadist groups. Israel’s currently not interested in provoking Hamas by targeting its senior leadership for assassination.
In return, Hamas’s elite polices the Israeli siege, actively arrests jihadists and prevents as far as it can rockets from falling into Israel, not least when the usual Israeli retaliation against jihadist projectiles always targets Hamas’ vital facilities. Hamas’ usual response is to shout apocalyptic slogans about how "the enemy is testing our patience" and "revenge is coming soon."
Furthermore, Hamas leaders evidently sense the escalating tensions between Israel/Saudi Arabia and Hezbollah/Iran. If Gaza’s front is heating up, Israel’s northern front has been heating up for years, and there that the tension could burst at any moment, given the accumulating omens signifying confrontation since Lebanese PM Saad Hariri’s Saudi Arabian resignation.
In Hamas’ view, the military alert on Gaza’s borders could be either camouflage - a distraction so that Israel launches a surprising attack on the other, northern front - or a tool to pressure Hamas to capitulate and compromise more in the ongoing, Egyptian-brokered talks with the Palestinian Authority, and to spare its people another war.
And although Hamas might be well-prepared to engage in a new round of conflict with Israel, its leaders are entirely opposed to being Iran’s patsy and scapegoat, absorbing a death blow for Iran’s sake.
The Islamic Jihad, for its part, is currently under pressure to retaliate for the death of its military commanders. But, aside from its keenness to maintain the reconciliation process undisturbed, Islamic Jihad is constrained by several practical barriers.
Gaza’s skies are heavily punctuated by countless Israeli surveillance and combat drones that increase the risk of undertaking an attack. But Hamas remains a stronger reason for the Islamic Jihad to avoid escalation.
Since this latest Israeli attack on the militants’ tunnels, the ruling movement in Gaza has exerted great pressure on the Islamic Jihad maintain self-control; Hamas and Islamic Jihad operate consensually in regards to decisions to confront Israel, and the former retains superior power and dominance over the latter (not least when its ranks are infiltrated by Hamas operatives).
Moreover, Islamic Jihad personnel enjoy a superior status over the rest of Gaza’s population, granted by Hamas. They parade freely, can designate specific locations for their exclusive use for military training, and they can upgrade their armory with no constraints. Their relative leverage means some of its leaders are above the law. And that advantage would most likely dissipate if Islamic Jihad crosses the lines drawn by Hamas.
What concerns the parties on both sides of the Gaza border wall at the moment, and encourages them to intensify their efforts, is the likelihood of an individual act of retaliation, undertaken by unauthorized Islamic Jihad personnel, and as such is a wild card: an act that can’t be predicted, prevented or controlled. There have been several precedents for incidents like this.
In May 2015, in a Samson-like cliché of "Let it fall on me and my enemies!", and as an outcome of an internal dispute between Islamic Jihad leaders, a primitive projectile rocket was launched from Gaza on the Israeli city of Ashkelon. There were no casualties. That rocket triggered an immediate Israeli retaliation of four airstrikes on several Islamic Jihad training posts, that same night.
All in all, more than two weeks have passed on the tunnel incident and both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad has shown discipline and self-control, aside from statements made for public consumption. The more time that passes, the less likely an attack in direct retaliation will occur.
The end-of-November meeting of Palestinian factions in Egypt makes it even harder for Islamic Jihad to undertake an act that would squarely put further escalation solely on its shoulders. The militants’ rage is more likely to come to a flash point if the Palestinian reconciliation process is thwarted. If progress continues to be made, that rage will be sublimated and disappear with time, at least until the next flashpoint.
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 formerly the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2