Israel and Hamas against PIJ

Hamas is aware of the deep crisis but still sticks to its guns, literally, by insisting on holding and upgrading its arsenal instead of helping its own people.

ISLAMIC JIHAD terrorists show off their weapons in the Gaza Strip.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
ISLAMIC JIHAD terrorists show off their weapons in the Gaza Strip.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The recent clash in the Gaza Strip was not like earlier ones there because it was only between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and Hamas was not really involved. This could be a model for the future in which Israel might strike the PIJ while Hamas again stays out of the fight.
Hamas has been a sworn enemy of Israel since the Gaza-based group was established in the late ‘80s. Hamas continues the conflict with Israel in spite of the huge economic and social troubles in the Gaza Strip. Most of the two million Palestinians who live there suffer from the incompetent way in which the terrorist organization has ruled the area for more than a decade. The Gaza Strip has crumbling infrastructure, and there is an enormous lack of jobs and basic services, to such a degree that the coastal enclave might collapse completely in a matter of a few years or even sooner.
Hamas is aware of the deep crisis but still sticks to its guns, literally, by insisting on holding and upgrading its arsenal instead of helping its own people. Hamas refuses to accept, even unofficially, any kind of agreement that will help the Gaza Strip recover, in return for disarming the terrorist group.
Israel might tolerate Hamas staying in power in the Strip with its guns – but without its rockets, missiles and tunnels, which pose a threat to Israel. Hamas could therefore have some type of a police force, strong enough to enforce law and order in the coastal enclave, i.e., to restrain its enemies there such as the PIJ. Either way, Hamas can allow Israel to strike the PIJ.
Israel has overwhelming superiority over both Hamas and the PIJ, but it will be easier and less costly for Israel, on several levels, if the IDF can focus on the PIJ exclusively. Hamas has more weapons and manpower than the PIJ. Furthermore, Hamas has ties to Turkey. A clash, let alone a war between Israel and Hamas, would cause already shaky Turkish-Israeli relations to deteriorate. Israel should try to avoid that unless it has no other choice but to attack Hamas, with all the ramifications such a clash implies, including in regard to Turkey.
The fight between Israel and the PIJ was watched by Iran and its proxies. The PIJ relies on Iran, Israel’s nemesis. Tehran provides it with weapons, money, political support, etc., but the group is not Iran’s most important proxy. The PIJ is also Sunni and Arab, while Iran is mostly Shi’ite and Persian. The Islamic Republic does not want to risk a war with Israel because, of all its proxies, the PIJ will be alone when it fights with Israel, as it was in this recent clash.
HAMAS MONITORED the PIJ before this recent collision. It was pleased that its two foes, the PIJ and Israel, hit each other while absorbing casualties and damages. Yet no one was killed in Israel and the cost to its economy was not very heavy. And the PIJ was harmed but it was certainly not destroyed. The IDF did not send ground forces into the Gaza Strip, and the Israeli Air Force launched relatively few air strikes. So there was not a major offensive against the jihadist group.
The PIJ can exploit the collision in order to gain popularity, bragging that it survived after it stood by itself against Israel. This kind of image can be at the expense of Hamas, which presents itself as heading the Palestinian fight against the Jewish state. Hamas does not want to be seen in the Arab world, and particularly in the Gaza Strip, as fearing Israel, let alone assisting it in confronting the PIJ. Hamas criticizes the Palestinian Authority for its security cooperation with Israel against it. Hamas does not seek to be seen as a different version of the PA, i.e., collaborating with Israel against other Palestinians.
Both Israel and Hamas want to contain the PIJ as much as possible because, compared to Hamas, it is too radical and much closer to Iran. In spite of the rivalry between Hamas and the PIJ, if there is another clash between the PIJ and Israel, it might only be a matter of time until Hamas is forced to join the battle. That would be a different war, although not as serious as a war between Israel and Hezbollah, which is stronger than Hamas. Nevertheless, it is a war Israel should avoid. If Israel decides it must confront Hamas and/or the PIJ, it has to be done on the best terms for Israel – the military, political and economic ones.
The recent clash started after a senior figure from the PIJ was killed by Israel. Jerusalem knew that the assassination might bring an escalation, but it did not get ready for a major showdown. For example, the IDF did not deploy its armor and infantry brigades near the Gaza Strip, a necessary step before a war there. Israel therefore hopes that the current round will be limited and will end quickly, hoping the PIJ and Hamas are not looking for a war right now.
All in all, Israel has to learn from this latest clash in the Gaza Strip how to handle a similar confrontation in the future – one that might happen at any time. Israel needs to make it clear that Hamas will pay a very substantial price if it does not restrain the PIJ before and during a fight with Israel. And containing the pro-Iranian PIJ could help in the overall struggle against Iran. Furthermore, if Hamas is willing to accept a long-term ceasefire, it could be used to break, or at least weaken, the alliance between Hamas and Iran, which will reduce Iran’s influence in the region.
 Dr. Ehud Eilam has been researching Israel’s national security for more than 25 years, including working for the Defense Ministry. He has published six books, including Containment in the Middle East (University Press of Nebraska, 2019).