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Hamas sits out Islamic Jihad escalation in favor of deal with Israel

The latest escalation in Gaza showed where Israel and Hamas' interests converge, as neither wants to see Islamic Jihad gain too much power.

Egyptian-mediated contacts between Israel and Islamic Jihad resulted in a cease-fire in the early hours of Nov. 14. It was the first time Hamas did not participate in contacts between the two sides. For leaders of the second largest organization in Gaza, it was a redefining moment. Until now, Hamas as the sovereign force in the enclave had conducted all cease-fire negotiations that ended the armed clashes between Israel and Gaza, including the three major offensives of the past 11 years: Cast Lead (2008-9), Pillar of Defense (2012) and Protective Edge (2014). The smaller organizations were considered lower-level components of the anti-Israel “resistance” and were not involved.

Now that the sides have agreed on a truce, the Secretary General of Islamic Jihad Ziyad Al-Nakhaleh as well as his deputy Akram Al-Ajouri, whose son was killed in a Nov. 12 bombing of an apartment building in Damascus, and the organization’s Gaza leader Mohammed Al-Hindi can declare victory, having solidified their standing vis-à-vis Israel, Hamas and Egypt. Iran, too, can be pleased that its unconditional aid for the organization paid off in saving its proxy from having to surrender to Israel.

Hamas was the most significant player — or, rather, non-player — in the current clash between Israel and Islamic Jihad. It was a watershed moment in its relationship with Israel, which it has consistently threatened with “a fitting response” to any attack on Gaza but silenced its rockets after Israel’s Nov. 12 assassination of Baha Abu al-Ata.

While the Hamas leadership allowed Islamic Jihad to respond to the assassination by launching rockets at Israel to their hearts’ content, the over 400 projectiles’ range was limited. Although Islamic Jihad has an arsenal of missiles that can strike parts of the greater Tel Aviv metro area, this red line was respected, probably under instructions from Hamas to avoid giving Israel an excuse for a broader military campaign. Hamas tolerated all the criticism hurled at it this week in Gaza for the sake of progress in forging a long-term arrangement with Israel rather than getting dragged into yet another war. For the sake of the arrangement, Hamas kept silent, even when it was accused of having abandoned its leadership of the jihad against Israel, fearing a confrontation with Israel and betraying its partner under their mutual sponsor, Iran.

And where was Hamas Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar? Sinwar, who just 10 days ago threatened to rain rockets on Tel Aviv for six straight months, was silent. According to a Nov. 13 Yisrael Hayom report, a senior Hamas official told the paper’s correspondent Daniel Siryoti that Sinwar refused to join the fighting despite pressure from two senior figures in the movement, Rahwi Mushtawa and Khalil al-Hayya. The report has not been confirmed by any other source, but it is worth noting that Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the political department who never misses an opportunity to threaten Israel, was also not heard from.

Hamas sat out this round. The Israel Defense Forces would have undoubtedly expanded its bombing targets had a direct hit on an Israeli house incurred casualties. Likewise, mass civilian casualties in Gaza could have forced the Hamas leadership to respond in order to show its people and the world that it cares about its citizens. That was why Hamas urged Egypt to speed up the cease-fire contacts with Islamic Jihad, whose leadership, enjoying the feeling of being courted, was in no rush down to lay down the rocket launchers.

The Israeli media has recently focused more on Al-Ata’s killing than on Al-Ajouri’s attempted assassination in Damascus that foreign reports attributed to Israel. However, for Islamic Jihad, the attack far from Gaza allegedly by the long arm of Israel this week are greater deterrents than Al-Ata’s elimination and probably another reason the organization did not use longer-range missiles against Israel.

As with Hamas, for Islamic Jihad, Egypt is the go-to address for all contacts and negotiations. An Israeli security source confirmed to Al-Monitor that senior Egyptian intelligence officials were conveying messages on Israel’s behalf to both groups. Shortly after Al-Ata’s assassination, Israel asked Egypt to tell Hamas that it is not interested in harming Hamas, only those who have undermined and are planning to torpedo the ongoing attempts to reach a long-term deal on Gaza, and therefore the group would be well advised to stay out of the developing clash. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu subsequently said as much at a Nov. 12 news conference: “Israel isn't interested in an escalation, but we will do everything it takes to defend ourselves, and that may take time.” In other words, Israel is focusing on Islamic Jihad and if Hamas intervenes, Israel will defend itself accordingly.

Al-Ata had been quite a thorn in the side the Hamas leadership over the past year. Ever since Al-Nakhaleh’s September 2018 appointment to replace the ailing Abdallah Ramadan Shaleh, his organization had adopted an increasingly provocative line against Hamas, which finds nothing more insulting than being portrayed to Palestinians everywhere as having abandoned its holy war to collaborate with the “devil.” Al-Ata struck at Hamas’ sensitive underbelly: its image. Hamas would have long ago arrested and jailed him had he not been a senior commander in an organization backed by Iran, which Hamas does not want to anger now that it has restored ties with Tehran following a lengthy disruption by its former political chief Khaled Mashaal.

Israel did Hamas’ dirty work for it, and Hamas hopes that Islamic Jihad got the message. For now, Israel has every reason to believe that Hamas is serious and willing to push ahead with a deal on a long-term truce and the easing of Israel’s blockade of Gaza. There is no better proof than its conduct in Gaza this week.

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