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To Weaken Islamic Jihad, Cut It Off From Its Sources of Strength

Ronit Marzan
Ronit Marzan
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Islam Jihad operatives, in Gaza, last week.
Islam Jihad operatives, in Gaza, last week.Credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters
Ronit Marzan
Ronit Marzan

For years now, Islamic Jihad has maintained complex relationships with the Palestinian, Arab, international and Israeli environments. These complexities range from quiet subversion to moments of provocation and frontal confrontation based on a dogmatic and maximalist Islamic vision and ideology. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords, and especially after the unilateral Israeli disengagement from Gaza and the rise of Hamas to power, Islamic Jihad refuses to be subordinated to the authority of the official political leadership of the Palestinian people.

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The first source of strength for Islamic Jihad is the Hamas movement in Gaza. This is so even though Hamas is a bitter rival that competes with Islamic Jihad for the support of the same sector of the population. The Islamic Jihad secretary general, Ziyad al-Nakhalah, understands that to guarantee the organization’s freedom to operate, it must force Hamas to remain a “pillar of the resistance,” and prevent it from becoming a political player seeking any normalization or economic accord with Israel.

To this end, Nakhalah adopted the strategy that Hamas used against Yasser Arafat after he signed the Oslo Accords. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin forced Arafat, who is considered the father of the armed Palestinian resistance, to want to prove that he was indeed a national patriot no less than Hamas. He thus made Arafat contain Hamas – a decision that eventually led Arafat to his personal ruin.

Through statements that present Islamic Jihad as the determining factor with regard to the timing, pace and scope of the political and armed struggle with Israel; by working to unite all Palestinian arenas; by not abandoning prisoners and by being willing to challenge the notion that Hamas is a rational actor, Nakhalah ensures that even if Hamas does not join the next military scuffle due to its civil responsibility, he will not dare harm Islamic Jihad and risk losing his patriotic image and legitimacy in the eyes of the people – as had happened to the Palestinian Authority.

If we wish to remove this source of strength from Islamic Jihad, it is necessary to make Hamas legitimate in the eyes of Israel, of other leaders in the region and of the international community. It is also crucial to allow Hamas to connect with Mohammed Dahlan’s Fatah movement. Together they will be able to rehabilitate the Gaza Strip and fight the jihadist organization that is trying to prevent this.

The second source of strength for Islamic Jihad is the disobedient elements in the Fatah movement – the militant faction Tanzim and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. The devaluation of the political legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority due to division, oppression, corruption and political stagnation, as well as the fear within Fatah of losing power in the West Bank to Hamas, allow Islamic Jihad to urge Fatah activists to join them “to restore the crown to its former glory.” To take this source of strength away from Islamic Jihad, a political process must be promoted. This will retard the devaluation of Fatah’s national image.

The third source of strength for the Islamic Jihad is the Palestinian public and especially the residents of the refugee camps. If the Palestinians stop supporting the rationale of military resistance and refuse to join the organization, it is possible that it will cease to exist. Nakhalah frightens and humiliates the Palestinians by warning them that they will become laborers and slaves in the service of the Jews and their Zionist enterprise. He demands that all Palestinians show solidarity with the fighting forces and provide them with a convenient battleground, ready to absorb losses in property and lives.

In fact, Nakhalah, who lives very comfortably, is not interested in the wretched lives of the Palestinians. I doubt if he even read the letter that Dr. Riyad Awad sent him in May 2019, in which Awad wrote:

“I feel tormented. There is great pain in my chest and my sleep is wandering since I heard your last interview on Al Mayadeen. … I am one of those who loved Islamic Jihad. … Its members have a special national bond with our society. … It is based on love and respect. … The role of every Palestinian organization … is not to provide reasons for war. … And even when war breaks out, we must prevent its escalation. ... Your language of threats, which is directed at our enemies, does not help to create the atmosphere necessary for the rest of the world to align itself with our cause, but provokes and incites the opposite. ... The role of the resistance is not to engage in an open war with a nuclear state that the whole world supports. ... Gaza is poor, weak, and lacks resilience and strategic resources. ... The result of such a war is the burning of Gaza and its complete destruction. ... Mr. Nakhalah, I want you to know that the people in Gaza that I know do not want war, do not like war, and are unable to withstand an open war with Israel.”

To prevent Nakhalah from perpetuating this culture of death and turning generations of Palestinian children into martyrs or crippled people on crutches, the international community must initiate far-reaching rehabilitation and reconstruction projects in the refugee camps and give the refugees a life of dignity on a personal and national level.

Islamic Jihad derives its fourth source of strength from Iran and Hezbollah. It is with their assistance that it aspires to terrorize Israel and its Arab and Western allies. The organization recently warned that “if Islamic Jihad, with its limited military capabilities, managed to cover Israel’s sky with rockets, what will happen when the Islamic resistance in Lebanon decides to act against Israel?”

File photo: Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah meets with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, February 11, 2019. Credit: Reuters

Nakhalah also uses his alliance with Iran and Hezbollah to control his own fighters. During the Breaking Dawn military operation, he conveyed the following message to the troops: If you show weakness in battle, you will not be able to demand assistance from our allies. In other words, his message was that if they won’t fight, they will lose their source of livelihood as fighters in the service of Iran and Hezbollah.

France has a major role in taking this source of power away from Islamic Jihad. France must pressure the Lebanese government to remove Islamic Jihad’s foreign leadership from Lebanon, and to promote a radical intervention and immediate treatment in the refugee camps on its soil.

To prevent this small organization from ruining the lives of Palestinians and paralyzing the lives of Israelis, it needs to be cut off from its sources of strength. The earlier it is done, the better.

Dr. Ronit Marzan is a researcher of society and politics of the Palestinians at the Chaikin Chair for Geostrategy at the University of Haifa.

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