Why Hamas opted out of Israel-Gaza escalation — again

Hamas stayed out of the recent confrontation between Israel and the Islamic Jihad in Gaza, raising many questions.

al-monitor Flame and smoke are seen during an Israeli airstrike in the southern Gaza Strip, Feb. 24, 2020.  Photo by REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa.
Adnan Abu Amer

Adnan Abu Amer

@adnanabuamer1

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Gaza

Feb 28, 2020

For the second time in recent months, Hamas has let the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) go at it alone in a confrontation with Israel, as Hamas leaders try to maintain a balance between showing support for the faction and seeking longer-term benefits for the Gaza Strip.

Israel and the PIJ engaged in a new round of military escalation Feb. 23-24. The violence broke out after the Israeli army shot dead Mohammad al-Naem, a PIJ member in eastern Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, claiming he attempted to plant a bomb at the border fence. A graphic video that circulated among Palestinians showed an Israeli bulldozer lifting Naem’s body after he was killed, sparking outrage and calls for revenge.

A few hours later, the PIJ fired dozens of rockets on southern Israel without killing or wounding anyone. Israel responded by launching air raids on the movement’s locations in Gaza and Syria, and killed two of its members in Damascus.

Late Feb. 24 — after it launched 50 rockets and mortars on Israel — the PIJ announced the end of its response to the killing of its members in Damascus and Gaza.

Hassan Abdo, a political analyst close to the PIJ, told Al-Monitor, “The escalation ended without an agreement between Israel and the Islamic Jihad. It was unilateral, which confirms that the movement is holding the reins of the initiative and decides when to begin and end its response. Israel tries from time to time to harp on strife between the Islamic Jihad and Hamas. The latter controls Gaza and wants to preserve a calm atmosphere to maintain humanitarian understandings in favor of lifting the blockade on Gaza, which Hamas and Israel agreed on under Egyptian, Qatari and UN brokerage in October 2018.”

But, he added, “The situation in Gaza does not show any disputes between the two movements or problems between their military wings. Hamas spokespeople side with the Islamic Jihad politically and give it full legitimacy. Their harmonious relationship pressures Israel, which doesn't want to expand its confrontation circle. Hamas might be on the same page as Israel in that regard, but it has given the Islamic Jihad the chance to manage the battle with Israel without widening the confrontation.”

On Feb. 25, PIJ Secretary-General Ziad al-Nakhalah called Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh to discuss the latest developments in Gaza, and they agreed to stand in the face of Israel and halt all forms of Israeli aggression on Palestinian people. They reiterated that their relationship runs deep.

Ahmed Abu Hamza, spokesman for al-Quds Brigades, PIJ's military wing, revealed Feb. 25 in his speech during Naem's funeral that the military wings of both factions were in touch during the latest confrontation.

Palestinian factions in Gaza — including Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Palestinian Freedom Movement — released separate statements Feb. 23 and 24 asserting that Israeli threats to attack Gaza would not intimidate them, because the threats aim to garner support for the Israeli right ahead of March elections.

Although Hamas did not engage in the latest military confrontation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened Feb. 24 to attack both Hamas and the PIJ.

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem told Al-Monitor, “The escalation began with the assassination of Naem and the atrocious way he was dragged [by the bulldozer]. The resistance practiced its right to respond, which received public and factional approval. Hamas believes the resistance has the right to react to the crime. Although it does not want to start a war, it is trying to forbid aggression on our people."

He added, "Meanwhile, Israel always attacks us. Tensions in Gaza arise from the ongoing aggression and the blockade. Israel agreed with mediators on certain measures to lift the blockade, and it has to abide by them.”

During the recent escalation, two notable developments embarrassed Hamas in front of the Palestinian public. First, the escalation came two days after Hamas' leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, welcomed at his office Mohammed al-Emadi, Qatari ambassador to the Palestinian territories. Emadi offered humanitarian aid to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, including a Qatari donation of $12 million.

Second, the Israeli Walla! news website revealed Feb. 22 that Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, along with Herzi Halevi, chief of the army's Israeli Southern Command, visited Qatar secretly in early February and discussed with Qatari officials the possibility of a deal with Hamas.

Palestinians believe the latest confrontation did not escalate any further because Hamas did not take part. If Hamas had launched rockets, that might have led to another war with Israel, but that's not what Palestinians want.

“Israel wanted to show in this round that it is targeting the Islamic Jihad only, not all factions, but it didn't succeed, due to public support for the resistance," Wasef Erekat, a Palestinian military expert and former PLO artillery chief, told Al-Monitor.

"The Palestinian public seemed more enthusiastic than the resistance to avenge Naem’s killing. The Islamic Jihad’s response was calculated and reasonable. Hamas’ … restraint embarrassed it in front of Palestinians. What is more problematic for Hamas is that the escalation coincided with increased talk about more humanitarian concessions in Gaza," Erekat added.

This is the second fight against Israel that the PIJ has waged alone, without Hamas’ intervention. The first escalation happened after Israel assassinated PIJ military commander Bahaa Abu al-Atta Nov. 12. It's possible the PIJ will fly solo in future escalations with Israel, which could affect settlement talks between Hamas and Israel, under Qatari and Egyptian brokerage. Or Hamas and the PIJ might have to coordinate to maintain calm in Gaza, or fight Israel together without slipping into a wide-scale war.

Regardless of which scenario develops if another round of escalation breaks out, an objective reading of the recent situation in Gaza shows that a future settlement between Israel and Hamas is shaky.

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