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Palestinian Islamists disrupt an attempted truce in Gaza

Palestinian Islamists disrupt an attempted truce in Gaza
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While Israel attempted to achieve quiet in the lead-up to the March 2 elections, Hamas, with a strategic interest in pausing the fighting, also sought quiet to improve living standards in Gaza. But the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) torpedoed this attempt. The escalation that erupted between the PIJ and Israel in February is characteristic of the PIJ’s recent efforts to disrupt calm in Gaza.

Hamas has determined that a truce can boost its regional standing in the Middle East and enable it to find support beyond its traditional, more radical allies. At the same time, a ceasefire enables Hamas to build up its resources and prepare for further developments in the West Bank, ahead of the inevitable, eventual departure of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Driven by these objectives, Hamas has pursued efforts to reach understandings with Israel. This alignment of common interests motivated both to try to reach a truce. If they succeed, they will lay the groundwork for extending such understanding to other areas.

Three main parties are leading the mediation efforts. First is Egypt, which has worked to de-escalate conflicts in Gaza through a carrot-and-stick approach towards Hamas. Cairo has many reasons to seek calm in Gaza. Doing so would improve Egypt’s domestic security situation, for example. Second is Qatar, which — despite tensions between this Gulf state and Egypt — has been supplementing Egypt’s mediation efforts by providing finances toward the effort. Qatar is intent on being an active player in any regional crisis zone to increase its influence. Third, the United Nations special envoy to the region, Nickolay Mladenov, serves as an important bridge to broader international elements, particularly the European Union, the United States and Russia. As a result, Hamas cannot ignore him.

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On the eve of the escalation in February, Israel signaled its willingness to support Hamas’s strategy to improve Gaza’s economic situation, taking two important steps to that end. It allowed 7,000 Gazans to enter Israel for trade purposes — the first time that has happened since Hamas’s violent coup in 2007. This move enabled thousands of people to find daily work in Israel, and bring money back to the Gaza Strip. And Israel expanded the fishing zone for Gazan fishermen, to increase the resources entering Gaza. 

Hamas has identified the end of March as the start date for renewing Palestinian riots on the Israeli-Gazan border. That timing gives Israel one month, post-elections, to form a coalition and formulate the next steps regarding Gaza.

Tragically, this positive momentum has been foiled by PIJ. For 20 years, this organization has been a prime catalyst of violence against Israelis that is disproportionate to the size and power of the organization. The PIJ has conducted attacks such as suicide bombings and roadside bombings, targeting the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Israeli civilians. 

In Gaza, the PIJ has been building an arsenal of ballistic rockets, whose quantity and variety have become as threatening as that of Hamas. Since its founding in the late 1980s, the PIJ has been ideologically committed to destroying the State of Israel and establishing an Islamist state in its place. Unencumbered by any obligation to deal with civilian needs, the PIJ deals exclusively with the recruitment of operatives and solicitation of funds. Consequently, unlike the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the PIJ is considered a terror organization whose mission is to shed blood and create escalations on a regular basis, and to torpedo any understandings that Hamas and Israel might reach. 

In terms of ideology, we know the PIJ originates from the same breeding ground as Hamas and shares a similar foundational identity. More ominously, though, the PIJ has identified with the path of the Iranian Islamic Revolution since 1979 and created strong reciprocal relations with Tehran. The Iranians extend financial credit lines to the PIJ, funding that it uses to build up and activate its forces. It also enjoys ties with Hezbollah, which acts as an influencing factor in the PIJ’s force build-up and training. The PIJ’s has headquarters in Gaza, Syria and Lebanon, which strengthens the radical ties between this Sunni organization and the Shi’ite axis.

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This situation has created a growing dilemma for Hamas in recent years. Under the leadership of Yayha Sinwar and Ismail Haniyah, Hamas has sought to buy time for its long game, without changing ideology. This stance has created a widening gap between Hamas and the PIJ. For the first time, during two rounds of fighting Hamas sat on the sidelines and refrained from joining in. The PIJ also has delivered results that Iran wanted to see, and thus considers itself an equal party to Hamas, one whose goals must be taken into full consideration.

All of this means that Hamas has reached a critical juncture. It must decide whether to enforce its rule in Gaza or co-opt the PIJ as a partner. The latter course could ruin its current strategy and drag Hamas back to the world of terrorism and armed conflict much sooner than it planned.

Israel, too, is at a crossroads and must decide if it wants to continue to extend the periods of quiet or, if that fails, launch a broad military operation in Gaza. It also needs to decide whether it will allow the PIJ to continue to strengthen its forces. Alternatively, Israel could launch a targeted campaign against the PIJ, striking its leaders, infrastructure and rocket developers, and blocking its funding sources. 

Given the stakes, activating a comprehensive campaign against the PIJ would allow Israel to realize a truce far more definitively than would continuing the status quo.

Eitan Dangot, a retired major general with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), is an expert with The MirYam Institute. He concluded his career in 2014 as chief coordinator of government activities in the Territories. Prior to that he was the military secretary to three defense ministers.