Regardless of how and when the current round of fighting ends, it’s clear that the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad organization has managed to reassert its status as the second largest and most influential terror group in the Gaza Strip.
It’s also obvious that Islamic Jihad has become a major threat not only to Israel, but to Hamas as well. Similarly, it has also become a real threat to the Palestinian Authority, especially in the northern West Bank.
In the past several years, Islamic Jihad has been openly challenging Hamas by operating as a state-within-a-state in the Gaza Strip. Hamas leaders have always displayed intolerance towards rival groups in the coastal enclave.
Even more disturbing for Hamas is the fact that a number of other armed groups have joined Islamic Jihad in firing rockets at Israel in the past 24 hours. These groups are affiliated with Fatah, Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Popular Resistance Committees and Nasser Salah a-Din Brigades.
The fighting in the Gaza Strip shows that Hamas is no longer the sole decision-maker on matters related to military confrontations with Israel. It further illustrates that Islamic Jihad is capable of acting as an independent military force without having to coordinate with, or receive permission from, Hamas.
A statement published by the armed wing of Islamic Jihad on Saturday boasted that the terrorist groups were united in confronting the Israeli “aggression” on the Gaza Strip.
The statement, nonetheless, does not seem to reflect the reality on the ground, namely that Hamas has still not joined Islamic Jihad and its allies in the current round of fighting.
By Saturday afternoon, there was still no indication that Hamas was keen on joining the fighting. Statements issued by Hamas leaders offered nothing but lip service to Islamic Jihad and the other terrorist groups.
A terse statement by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said that he “affirmed during contacts with the Egyptian intelligence heads that what happened in the Gaza Strip is the responsibility of the occupation state alone.” Haniyeh, in addition, “stressed the need to stop the bombing targeting the Gaza Strip.”
Another statement released by Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum also failed to offer any hint that his group was planning to join the fighting. “The resistance, with all its military arms and factions, is united in this battle, will defend our people in the Gaza Strip with everything it possesses, and will defeat the occupation as it defeated it in all the battles,” said Barhoum.
At this stage, it’s obvious that Hamas does not want Islamic Jihad to drag it into another all-out confrontation with Israel. Hamas’s biggest fear is that another war could trigger a revolt against its regime by the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, who paid a heavy price during last year’s military confrontation with Israel.
Hamas is now hoping that Egypt and Qatar will be able to achieve a new ceasefire between Israel and Islamic jihad. Although it is doing its utmost not to get involved in the fighting, Hamas is apparently worried that if the fighting escalates and the number of casualties rises in the Gaza Strip, it will no longer be able to continue sitting on the fence.
In the past, Hamas found itself in the same position that Islamic Jihad is in now, when it created a state-within-a-state under the rule of the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian Authority’s failure to rein in Hamas in the 1990s ultimately saw the Islamists seize control of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2007 after toppling the Palestinian Authority.
Paradoxically, Israel’s military strikes against Islamic Jihad serve the interests of Hamas by undermining the organization that poses a threat to its rule over the Gaza Strip. But Hamas’s failure to assist Islamic Jihad could also prove to be counterproductive, especially in wake of increased voices criticizing the rulers of the Gaza Strip for their neutral stance.