Hamas’s Islamic Jihad Dilemma - Analysis

The assassination of Abu al-Ata came as a surprise to PIJ leaders, who rushed to announce that their group was now at war with Israel.

House where Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Bahaa Abu Al-Ata was assassinated by the IDF (photo credit: MAJDI FATHI/TPS)
House where Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Bahaa Abu Al-Ata was assassinated by the IDF
(photo credit: MAJDI FATHI/TPS)
The Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), whose senior commander Bahaa Abu al-Ata was killed by Israel on Tuesday, has been causing headaches not only for Israel, but also for the Egyptians and Hamas.
The assassination of al-Ata came as a surprise to PIJ leaders, who rushed to announce that their group was now at war with Israel. Palestinians in the Gaza Strip described the assassination as a “big blow” to the group and its military wing, Al-Quds Brigades.
Hamas, meanwhile, seemed to be very cautious in its response to the assassination. By Tuesday afternoon, it remained unclear whether Hamas has officially joined PIJ and other groups in firing rockets at Israel. Hamas is reluctant to engage in a new war with Israel because it knows that would mean the end of its rule, the Palestinians explained.
In recent months, al-Ata was among PIJ leaders who visited Cairo a number of times for talks with Egyptian intelligence officials on ways of preserving ceasefire understandings reached between Israel and the Gaza-based Palestinian factions earlier this year under the auspices of the Egyptians.
The invitation to Cairo came after the Egyptians realized that PIJ and its patrons in Tehran are not too pleased with the ceasefire understandings.
As part of its effort to persuade PIJ to honor the ceasefire understandings, Egypt recently released more than 80 Palestinians who were being held in Egyptian detention. At least half of the detainees were said to be members of PIJ.
The PIJ leaders are reported to have told the Egyptians that their group is not interested in an all-out military confrontation with Israel, at least not at this stage.
After the last visit to Cairo, however, PIJ officials revealed that their group has decided to endorse a strategy called mushaghalet al adu (engaging the enemy). This strategy, according to the officials, calls for pursuing sporadic terror attacks in order to keep Israel “busy” and show that PIJ is not part of any ceasefire understandings.
The PIJ decision to keep the conflict with Israel on low flames has worried Hamas, some of whose leaders seem to be worried that an all-out military confrontation with Israel would end their rule over the Gaza Strip. In recent weeks, sources close to Hamas said that the movement has been exerting pressure on PIJ to refrain from launching any attack on Israel that could lead to another war in the Gaza Strip.
HAMAS IS aware that Palestinians living under its rule have yet to recover from the 2014 war with Israel. Hamas has since failed to adequately compensate thousands of families whose houses were destroyed or damaged during the war. Moreover, Hamas has failed to provide real solutions to the economic crisis in the Gaza Strip, where Palestinian activists have recently been planning to renew protests against the high cost of living, increased taxes and soaring unemployment.
Although its leaders regularly insist that they are working together and are fully coordinated, PIJ and Hamas are increasingly finding themselves marching in opposite directions.
Hamas wants to preserve the ceasefire understandings with Israel so as to remain in power. PIJ, on the other hand, wants to continue launching terror attacks against Israel for two reasons.
First, to appease their patrons in Tehran, and, second, to scores points on the Palestinian street by showing that, unlike Hamas, they are not prepared to make any concessions to the “Zionist enemy.”
PIJ is hoping that even if it suffers major military losses, it will nevertheless make political and popular gains from a confrontation with Israel. PIJ sees itself as the natural replacement for Hamas, if and when the latter’s rule over the Gaza Strip ends. A mini-war with Israel, PIJ believes, will further strengthen its standing among Palestinians.
PIJ is one of the few groups in the Gaza Strip that does not hesitate to openly challenge Hamas or disagree with it on crucial issues. In addition to the disagreement over the ceasefire understandings with Israel, the two groups also seem to differ over Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s recent initiative to hold new presidential and parliamentary elections. Hamas has indicated its readiness to participate in the vote, while PIJ maintains that it’s entirely opposed to the elections because they are being held under the umbrella of the Oslo Accords.
The assassination of al-Ata puts Hamas in a difficult situation.
On the one hand, Hamas can’t stop PIJ from retaliating against Israel for the killing of its senior commander. The last thing Hamas leaders want is to be seen preventing Palestinians from launching rockets at Israel to avenge the killing of a top military commander.
On the other hand, the assessment among Palestinians on Tuesday afternoon is that Hamas will not allow PIJ to drag the Gaza Strip into a military adventure with Israel. Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar are also aware that the IDF is capable of making them meet the same fate as al-Ata should Hamas join the PIJ rocket attacks on Israel.
For now, it seems that Hamas will allow PIJ to vent its rage against Israel over the killing of al-Ata, but not for too long. The statements of senior Hamas officials in response to the assassination indicate that although they would like to see Israel pay a heavy price, they are still afraid of a major IDF operation in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas is now trying to find a formula that would allow PIJ to extract a heavy price from Israel, while avoiding giving Israel an excuse to launch a big military operation in the Gaza Strip. As usual, all eyes are now set on Cairo, whose General Intelligence Service has previously managed to arrange a number of ceasefire agreements between the Gaza-based groups and Israel.