Why wasn't Hamas part of the recent confrontation round?

While Hamas stayed away from the confrontation rounds against Israel, some observers believe that Hamas is not preventing the factions from getting involved in these confrontations out of fear of losing Iranian funding and because it refuses to engage in a conflict against the factions.

al-monitor A Palestinian militant looks on as he surveys an Islamic Jihad site that was targeted in an Israeli airstrike in the southern Gaza Strip, Feb. 25, 2020.  Photo by REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa.

Mar 9, 2020

A second escalation round between Israel and the Palestinian factions, more particularly the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, occurred Feb. 23-24 in the Gaza Strip. This followed the Nov. 12-13 November military confrontation between the two sides that was marked by the Israeli assassination of Islamic Jihad commander Bahaa Abu al-Atta.

Although the Hamas movement did not take part in the confrontation round at the military level, it provided the involved factions with media and political support. This has prompted Israel to express satisfaction with Hamas’ conduct, and to claim that it managed to keep the movement away from the armed confrontation through its incentives. These are, namely, the monthly Qatari financial aid channeled to the Gazan poor and what implementation there has been of the 2018 understandings.

The way Hamas is dealing with the factions in the Gaza Strip that have been involved in the recent confrontations with Israel raises many questions. Why was Hamas unable to prevent the Islamic Jihad and other factions from firing rockets toward Israel? Does it not have the will to do so? Did Hamas' inaction occur out of fear of an internal conflict in Gaza, or of losing Iranian funding, since the factions involved are backed by Iran? 

Hamas' representative in Tehran, Khaled al-Qaddumi, told Al-Monitor that “resisting Israel is legitimate in the eyes of Hamas. Hamas has neither suppressed said resistance nor prohibited it, although the resistance factions have repeatedly agreed that [such a resistance] should be a part of a collective consultative mechanism to deter Israel." He said that Hamas-Islamic Jihad ties run deep, and that Islamic Jihad "appreciates our position, and in turn, we understand their actions. Dialogue has always prevailed over all complicated situations, and we are not in a conflict against each other. Rather, our steps are coordinated at the joint operations room where the outstanding and ambiguous issues are resolved.” Qaddumi also said, “Iran is a supporter of the Palestinian resistance and shares with us the same enemy, namely Israel. Our relations [with Iran] are based on countering [this enemy].”

The repeated confrontation rounds between the factions, except for Hamas, and Israel, could cause Hamas to feel that the rug is being pulled from under its feet, and that its control over the Gaza Strip has dwindled with time to the advantage of the other factions. That would prompt the movement to ponder whether it is better to impose control over the factions or consult with them on whether to escalate or calm down the situation with Israel.

The continuation of the escalation rounds without Hamas’ participation would render unstable any settlement with Israel, and subsequently impede the implementation of understandings Hamas is striving for in order to ease popular pressure. 

Abdul Rahman Shehab, director of the Atlas Center for Israeli Studies in Gaza and a political analyst close to the Islamic Jihad, told Al-Monitor that Hamas’ dissatisfaction with the confrontation in November between Israel and the Islamic Jihad "when its rockets hit Tel Aviv and almost caused a war that the movement rejects and is not ready for, was probably behind the movement refraining from joining" the escalation round. He said it is not in Hamas’ interest to pressure the Islamic Jihad, adding, "Iranian support for the movement serves as a safety valve, as Iran will not accept that they engage in any conflict against each other.” 

Keen on dissipating rumors that tension prevails over their relations following the recent escalation round, Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhalah and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh underlined their deep and strong ties during a phone call Feb. 25. 

Ahmed Abu Hamza, a spokesman for al-Quds Brigades, the Islamic Jihad's military wing, said Feb. 25 that during February’s escalation round, the al-Quds Brigades leadership was openly and continuously communicating with the leadership of Hamas’ military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

Wasef Erekat, a Palestinian military expert and former artillery unit commander of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told Al-Monitor that Hamas’ position differs from that of the Islamic Jihad "toward the recent confrontations where such divergent views are being exploited to arouse enmity between them. Yet, the social fabric in Gaza prevents them from getting involved in a conflict on the ground." He said it is only normal that the Islamic Jihad’s popularity increases, given that it is involved in the rounds against Israel. He also added, "Iranian support for the two movements prevents any conflicts.”

The Israelis have monitored how Hamas is dealing with the other factions. Rafi Laufert, author for Israel’s News1, wrote March 3 that the repeated rounds with the Islamic Jihad points at Iran’s ability to ignite several fronts at the same time.

Retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Amos Gilboa told Maariv on Feb. 27 that Hamas is capable of restraining the other factions, but lacks the willingness to do so.

Journalist, Yoni Ben Menachem, a former officer with the Israeli Intelligence Unit, told the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs Feb. 26 that Hamas is playing a double game. He said that although Hamas was not among those who fired rockets toward Israel recently, its fighters are present at the joint operations room in Gaza.

Wissam Afifa, the director of Al-Aqsa satellite channel in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “Israel is seeking to put some organizations in a better light at the expense of Hamas to cause division among them, and to show that Hamas cannot control their conduct or that its control over Gaza is no longer as strong as before. This is while Hamas would rather be on good terms with the others.”

“Hamas’ calculations are different from those of the factions, as leading the Gaza Strip is what determines its conduct toward Israel. When it perceives that a settlement with Israel is not paying off, it will revert back to a confrontation,” he added. He said that Hamas-Islamic Jihad relations have advanced, and that the few Islamic Jihad breaches are being contained by Hamas, which is aware that it cannot ensure full security control over Gaza. Afifa said that the Islamic Jihad "is trying to show that it is not hiding behind Hamas, but Iran knows that Hamas is the gateway to the Palestinian arena," and that Islamic Jihad cannot by itself "engage in a long confrontation with Israel without Hamas’ assistance."

One of the factors preventing Hamas from controlling the factions is that it does not want to serve as a policeman that safeguards Israel’s security in Gaza as the Palestinian Authority does in the West Bank. This is while the factions know that they cannot exercise their resistance without the consent of Hamas, which is still “the head of the household” even though for the moment many Gazans are seeing the rest of the factions in a better light.

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