Questions arise about Hamas' absence in fight with Israel

Hamas and Islamic Jihad are touting their unity following a brief dust-up after Hamas sat out the most recent battle between Israel and the resistance.

al-monitor Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh (R) and Islamic Jihad leader Khodr Habib walk together ahead of a meeting with the chairman of the Palestinian Central Election Committee in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, Oct. 28, 2019. Photo by MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images.

Dec 1, 2019

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Speculation is still swirling about why Hamas didn't participate in the fighting last month between Israel and Islamic Jihad, but the factions say they have put the controversy behind them and their ties are as strong as ever.

Fighting broke out in reaction to Israel’s assassination Nov. 12 of prominent Islamic Jihad military commander Bahaa Abu el-Atta and his wife, Asma Mohammed, in a targeted strike on their house in the Gaza Strip. Later that day, an Israeli missile attack left Islamic Jihad leader Akram al-Ajouri alive in Damascus, but his son Moaz did not survive.

The escalation ended Nov. 14 with a truce between Israel and Islamic Jihad brokered by the United Nations and Egypt.

There were media reports that Islamic Jihad initially resented Hamas for not participating in the latest escalation. However, a Hamas delegation offered condolences to Islamic Jihad after Abu el-Atta’s assassination. Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas’ political bureau, paid his respects to Islamic Jihad Secretary-General Ziad al-Nakhalah on Nov. 15, and they agreed to beef up cooperation.

On Nov. 19, Hamas political bureau deputy chief Saleh al-Arouri told Al-Aqsa TV that the relations between Hamas and Islamic Jihad are “excellent" and Hamas will never sacrifice the resistance's unity. 

Mohammad al-Hindi, Islamic Jihad's political bureau chief, told Al-Aqsa that Abu el-Atta had always coordinated with Hamas’ military arm and that it wasn't necessary for everyone to respond to the assassination. Hindi denied news reports claiming that Hamas disapproved of Abu el-Atta and didn't see eye to eye with him.

Hindi said the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaderships will meet soon to discuss cooperation.

The Palestinians wonder why Hamas did not participate in the latest round of escalation, which killed 34 Palestinians. Various theories have been floated.

A correspondent for Israeli Haaretz newspaper said in an analysis Nov. 15 that Hamas will expect to be rewarded for its inaction in ways that could help Hamas save face amid criticism from the Palestinians. Or Hamas may be hoping to extend its power in the West Bank by cooperating with Israel, Israeli political science professor Menachem Klein wrote in the online +972 Magazine.

Ibrahim al-Madhoun, a political analyst close to Hamas, told Al-Monitor that Hamas did not participate in the escalation because it realized that doing so would worsen the confrontation and throw the Gaza Strip into a large-scale war that would last for weeks. Hamas does not want this, for domestic, regional and international considerations. It is committed to the truce understandings so far, he added.

“Hamas saw in its lack of participation a chance to alter the Gaza-Israel relationship from [a choice between only the extremes of] complete calm or full-blown confrontation. Islamic Jihad [executed] this tactic with flying colors [without the need for Hamas' participation]," he said.

Hassan Abdo, a political analyst close to Islamic Jihad, told Al-Monitor that Islamic Jihad sees relations with Hamas as strategic, whether Hamas took part in the escalation round or not. He indicated that the latest escalation showed some differences in opinion, which created concern among the Palestinian public, but has been resolved between the two groups. “Israel wants to highlight the dispute between the two groups, but the Islamic Jihad and Hamas leaderships cannot accept this.”

Abdo said Islamic Jihad did want Hamas to fight with it, but the situation allowed Islamic Jihad to appear strong and capable of fighting a full battle with Israel single-handedly. With that, Islamic Jihad gained public and regional points as a Palestinian power that can't be ignored.

He noted that the imminent meetings in the next phase between the two groups hold a message for Israel that it did not benefit from Hamas’ disengagement in the latest escalation.

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem told Al-Monitor that Hamas-Islamic Jihad relations are developed and advanced on all levels. The groups coordinate, cooperate and negotiate on field issues, and they exchange military expertise. He said, “Calls between them are ongoing and did not stop during the recent escalation or after it.”

In addition, the latest round of fighting increased everyone’s awareness of the importance of collaboration. Upcoming military and political meetings between Hamas and Islamic Jihad will take place soon, he said. He added that Israel’s attempts to divide Islamic Jihad and Hamas have failed and always will.

“Developing relations with Islamic Jihad is a strategic choice that we will not reconsider,” he added.

Madhoun noted that Islamic Jihad and Hamas read the situation differently in the latest round of escalation, but have agreed to continue coordinating in the future. “Both groups are reassessing their conduct and reasserting the need to boost coordination before, during and after any confrontation," he said.

Their differences were not major, unlike some media's portrayal of them, he said, noting that Israel tries to capitalize on any perceived differences, but Hamas and Islamic Jihad both realize this and act quickly to counter Israeli efforts. He explained that both groups' statements carry clear political insinuations for Israel that they will not allow it to divide them.

“Perhaps the two groups will take clear courses of action, and we might soon see practical steps to avoid recurrence of this scenario. Any Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip will have to answer to all parties," Madhoun added.

Madhoun said that a Hamas delegation led by political bureau member Khalil al-Haya arrived in Beirut Nov. 25 to meet with Nakhalah and discuss the latest escalation.

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