Palestinian Islamic Jihad Scores Political Win in Ceasefire Talks

Article Summary
The recent conflict between Israel and Gaza has elevated the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement, which took a firm stance against Israel during ceasefire negotiations, writes Helmi Moussa. By responding in kind to Israel’s threats of escalation and by taking part in dialogue, the usually non-political movement achieved its first political victory.

Shortly after midnight, following extensive consultations, the Egyptians managed to broker a last-minute ceasefire between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This evokes memories of the period prior to the Israeli war on Gaza, when Israel had outlined a new equation for relations between the two entities: "calm for calm," without any other conditions. However, what characterizes this recent "comprehensive and mutual truce" is the role that the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) played in it.

It is clear that it was Israel who triggered the clashes by bombing the top commander of the Popular Resistance Committees. It did so well aware that it was reinforcing the rules of its same old game, where Israel strikes while Palestinians grit their teeth in pain. Israel knows very well that the Gaza-based Hamas government cannot risk losing control over the Strip, and that it was therefore forced to follow the usual rules of the game. Israel, however, adept at playing the role of the "neighborhood madman," failed to calculate that this time, its actions would turn Gaza into the "neighborhood of madmen."

When violence broke out, the Palestinians underwent a shift from a state of tranquility to one of complete agitation. The public reaction  and not necessarily that of the government and certain factions  called for a response to the aggression, whatever the consequences. Comments along the lines of "escalating violence is the only way to put an end to this crisis" could be found all over Facebook and other social networking sites. Many local radio hosts reiterated the same statements, placing the Hamas government in a critical position. The majority of Palestinian pundits believe that Israel should be treated in the same way that it treats the Palestinians.

The PIJ first tried to channel the latest upsurge in violence to its advantage. Normally, the movement does not participate in government, nor does it compete in elections. It remains on the sidelines and refrains from playing the role of political contender. In an attempt to achieve consensus, the Islamic movement agreed to many points contradictory to its political ideology. The PIJ is the second military power in Gaza Strip after Hamas. However, according to the Israeli press, the organization has expanded its arsenal of rockets, and is reported to have overtaken Hamas in terms of military capabilities.

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Obviously, factions like the PIJ are waiting for the right moment to put their arsenals to use. The latest Israeli strikes were the golden opportunity for the PIJ to prove itself, militarily and politically. Engaging in fights on the ground, then taking part in managing negotiations to halt violence, were something new to the movement.

In the word “dignity,” the PIJ has found the key to its goals. The movement was formed in response to the constant humiliation faced by the Palestinian people who complained of being unable to use their weapons. The PIJ movement announced that the rules of the game will change. Over the four days of violence, the organization fired 200 long-range rockets which reached Ghani Yebna, north of Ashdod.

Egypt then stepped in and mediated a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian militants. Israel's stance in these negotiations was again "calm for calm." The Egyptian mediators managed to set an hour marking the end of the fighting, and got all parties to agree on the terms of the truce. In consequence, at exactly noon on Monday [March 12, 2012] the Islamic movement was informed of the ceasefire and that Israel would retaliate in force to any missile fired from the Gaza Strip.

The warnings were clear, but the PIJ ignored them. It responded that whoever holds the power to stop those rockets from being fired could initiate an attack at any time. Intensive communications were then held with the PIJ leadership in Damascus through three channels: Egypt, Hamas and the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. All Palestinian factions responded with the same sentiment: there is no turning back to Israel’s long-term policies. The fight will continue until Israel guarantees the cessation of all assassination plots.

During the negotiations, the PIJ leadership was informed that Israel "does not negotiate its security." It responded in kind, with "Palestinians will not negotiate their security." Israel warned that it is ready to broaden its operations and would tighten security measures on the Gaza-based Palestinian resistance. In a conference broadcast on the Palestine al-Yaum [Palestine Today] television channel, the Al-Quds brigades issued a statement saying that the PIJ would expand its operations should Israel continue with its aggression.

It is likely that this message was taken to heart by Israel. Over the past few months, Israeli intelligence learned that the PIJ had in its possession rockets with a range of up to 70 km, which can ostensibly reach the outskirts of Tel Aviv. The Tel Aviv Civil Defense has been training for the first time for the possibility of missiles being fired from Gaza City.

Israel’s retort to the Egyptian mediators was that its declaration of a comprehensive truce effectively signalled a halt to the assassinations. As a result, Egypt proclaimed the ceasefire on the fourth night of violence. However, mortar shells continued to be fired toward some of the Israeli settlements around Gaza. Israel did not retaliate, as it does not seek escalation. Even if it was short-lived, this represented the first political victory for the Islamic Jihad, a force which until now has always been removed from politics.

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