Israel Pulse

Why Gaza's militant groups are cozying up to one another

Article Summary
Hamas is getting closer with the militias of Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees in an attempt to unify forces and benefit from Iranian support.

The latest skirmish between Israel and the Gaza Strip earlier this month proved once again that Hamas sends its “subcontractors,” as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) likes to call them, into the field. Israel has suspected for years that the armed wing of Hamas uses the Al-Quds Brigades of Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees whenever it wants to escalate tensions with Israel without engaging in an all-out clash. Such indirect action would provide the organization deniability for the attacks on Israel.

On May 5, for example, Islamic Jihad’s Al-Quds Brigades and armed members of the Popular Resistance Committees joined together in shelling IDF forces engaged in exposing an additional tunnel in Gaza along the border with Israel. The timing of the shelling, as the tunnel was being unearthed and just as Israel had stopped supplying cement to Gaza, was a signal to Israel that it was about to cross a red line that would force Hamas to react. This time, an escalation was averted only through Egyptian mediation efforts.

Israel formally blamed Hamas for the shelling because it had given the orders to fire, but it is also closely monitoring the growing military cooperation within the Gaza Strip.

Hamas, for its part, got what it wanted: drawing attention to Israel’s economic pressure on Gaza. The way it chose to do so illustrates the close cooperation among the various organizations operating in Gaza.

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A Palestinian security source told Al-Monitor that the cooperation among the Gaza organizations, about which Israel and the Palestinian Authority have known for quite some time, has been greatly strengthened in recent months.

During Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge, Hamas had already established a joint headquarters for all the Gaza organizations to exert control over the firepower against Israel. Now, “subcontractors” are an integral part of the alignment in the Gaza Strip. Whereas in the past, Hamas' Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades had turned to subcontractors only during escalations with Israel, the cooperation has now become a strategic asset for Hamas given its changing standing in the Arab world.

Al-Monitor has learned that senior officials of al-Qassam Brigades have reached an understanding with the heads of Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees to hold joint training exercises leading to the formation of a unified military force, while maintaining the individual nature of each organization. An Israeli defense source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Indeed, we have identified a unification and preservation of uniqueness.”

This cooperation is based on personal contacts between the organizations' leaders. Some have known each other since they were children, growing up in the same neighborhood and moving up within their respective organizations in parallel.

The Palestinian security source surmised that Hamas has a vested interest in cooperation among the organizations. Whereas Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees enjoy Iranian financial and even military support, including training under the auspices of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran has been treating Hamas like an outcast ever since the head of Hamas' political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, took an adversarial position against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Over the past two years Hamas leaders have sought ways to ease tensions with Iran and even tried to arrange a visit to Tehran by Meshaal and another one of its top leaders, Mousa Abu Marzouk, but all their reconciliation efforts failed. The relationship between Iran and Hamas reached a new low in July 2015 after a Hamas delegation visited Saudi Arabia. What little support the military wing was able to get from Iran through the connections of Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar dried up.

The increasing closeness between Hamas and Saudi Arabia has not replaced Iran's generous past support. The cutoff seriously hurt Hamas and led to its decision to cooperate with Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees.

The union has two goals. A long-term one is to bring these two organizations as close as possible to the military wing of Hamas and allow them the operational freedom of which they were deprived in the past, in the hopes that eventually ties with Iran can be improved. In the shorter term, they hope to enjoy in one way or another the advanced military support the two organizations still get from Iran. For Islamic Jihad and the Resistance Committees, this arrangement is the best of all worlds.

The IDF is well aware of this mutually beneficial rapprochement among the large Gaza organizations and the nurturing of Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees by Hamas. Although Israel reacts to every shell or Qassam rocket fired from Gaza as though Hamas had fired it itself, it seems that gradually and systematically the differences between the organizations are being blurred. If Hamas used to claim that rogue organizations operating under its nose were the ones that fired at Israel, this argument now appears spurious.

Now the question is whether the joining of military forces in the Gaza Strip will make of Hamas' political wing a burden for the military, which might decide one of these days to get rid of it.

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Found in: khaled meshaal, izz ad-din al-qassam brigades, islamic jihad, hamas-iran relations, hamas, gaza tunnels, gaza strip, gaza attacks

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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