Hamas and Islamic Jihad: Differences resurface after Israel's war

8 min read
22 August, 2022
Analysis: Hamas' decision not to participate in fighting during Israel's targeted campaign against Islamic Jihad underscores the differing interests of both groups, analysts say.

Less than a month after Israel ended its latest military operation in the Gaza Strip, questions remain about the decision by Hamas not to participate in hostilities between Tel Aviv and Islamic Jihad.

On 5 August, Israel launched a military assault on Islamic Jihad (PIJ), assassinating its commander, Tayseer al-Jaabari, and three of his assistants.

The targeted assassination came just days after detaining a PIJ leader in the occupied West Bank, which unilaterally escalated tensions.

The Israeli army then carried out dozens of airstrikes against residential buildings, military sites, and civilian properties under the pretext that they belonged to Islamic Jihad, the second most powerful armed Palestinian organisation in Gaza. 

In turn, the PIJ launched dozens of homemade rockets into Israeli cities and towns, including Tel Aviv, Ashkelon, and Ashdod, as well as towns adjacent to the Hamas-run coastal enclave. 

"On 5 August, Israel launched a military assault on Islamic Jihad, assassinating its commander, Tayseer al-Jaabari, and three of his assistants"

Two days later, Israel and Islamic Jihad agreed to a precarious Egyptian-brokered truce to end three days of intense bombing in Gaza that killed at least 49 Palestinians, including 17 children. At least 360 others were wounded in the conflict. 

The truce, which officially started at 11:30 pm local (2030 GMT) on 7 August, aimed to stop the worst Israeli bombing of Gaza since an 11-day Israeli aerial assault last year that devastated the Palestinian coastal territory and killed 260 people, including 67 children.

Where was Hamas?

Contrary to many expectations, Hamas kept a distance from the recent Israeli military assault, largely due to already dire living conditions in Gaza but also because of concessions it received following the ceasefire that ended Israel’s military operation in 2021.

Hamas was also informed by Egyptian mediators that Israel was going to launch a pre-emptive military operation against Islamic Jihad, a source close to Hamas told The New Arab.

“In a bid to avoid any new bloody military tensions, Hamas, including political and militant leaders, held a series of urgent meetings with PIJ leaders to warn them that Israel [based on their intelligence information] might launch an attack against their leaders," the source, who wished to remain anonymous, said.

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They added that Hamas’ military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, had asked PIJ leaders, including Tayseer al-Jaabari and Khalid Mansour, to exercise the utmost caution due to information of an impending Israeli assassination campaign.

Both senior leaders were killed by Israeli airstrikes.

“Unfortunately, they did not take Al-Qassam’s warnings seriously,” the source explained, noting that “it seems that the Gaza-based PIJ received intense pressure from Iran to launch limited attacks against Israel that would destabilise the security of the enemy”.

In turn, Hamas officially communicated to Egyptian mediators that it was not interested in getting involved in any military escalation with Israel in a bid to pressure Tel Aviv to fully implement the understandings reached with the group in last May’s ceasefire agreement.

Egypt mediated between the PIJ and Israel to reach an understanding that would stop any further military operations in Gaza and scheduled a meeting with them on 7 August in Cairo. 

Flames and smoke rise from a residential building following an Israeli airstrike on 6 August 2022 in Gaza City. [Getty]

Race against time

With Egyptian mediation efforts ongoing prior to the military assault, Islamic Jihad believed it was in a race against time with Israel amid rising tensions.

But the group preferred to wait for the outcome of meetings with Egyptian officials before deciding whether to launch attacks against Israel, a senior PIJ official told TNA.

“This was the main reason that pushed our leaders to feel that they were safe and that they could move, at least for the time being.” However, the official added, “Israel preceded us by assassinating Tayseer al-Jabari”.

As a result of these developments, the PIJ could not “stand idly by in the face of this Zionist crime and we had to practice our right to defend our Palestinian people and to resist the arrogance of the Zionist enemy,” Daoud Shehab, head of the PIJ’s media office, told The New Arab

"Hamas' non-participation in the military battle was the result of a fundamental disagreement with Islamic Jihad regarding the situation in the Gaza Strip"

“No one can deny our right to defend ourselves as well as our people, especially after positively dealing with the Egyptian broker. The Israeli crime of assassination put an end to all mediation,” he added. 

Despite the fact that Israel unilaterally initiated the military escalation, the PIJ found itself alone in the battle, without receiving any help from its ally Hamas.

However, in an attempt to thwart Israeli attempts to divide Palestinian armed factions, the PIJ dubbed the confrontation 'Unity of the Battlefields', a reference to the strategy of unifying the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, the occupied West Bank, and Palestinians within the Green Line of 1948, all of which have been deliberately segregated by Israeli policies.

In turn, Hamas joined Egyptian mediation efforts with Islamic Jihad to expedite reaching a truce agreement with Israel in return for the implementation of Islamic Jihad's demands.

Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas' political bureau, made official contact with Egypt and Qatar through the Egyptian intelligence services and the Qatari foreign ministry.

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In addition, Haniyeh contacted the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Tor Wennesland, to pressure Israel to stop its attack on Gaza.

In fact, Hamas' decision not to participate in the latest confrontation was not its first. The same policy was adopted by Hamas on 12 November 2019 when Israel assassinated Baha Abu al-Atta, Jabari's predecessor, in Gaza. Islamic Jihad responded at the time by firing rockets into Israel.

“Hamas is the backbone of the Palestinian resistance, and although Hamas did not participate, it provided a favorable environment for the Al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of Islamic Jihad, during the last battle, and stressed that Hamas and Islamic Jihad still form a united front against Israel,” Khaled al-Batsh, a senior PIJ leader, told The New Arab.

However, Gaza-based political expert Talal Okal believes that this sentiment was not reflected by the reality on the ground.

"If Israel had not known in advance that Hamas would not intervene unless there were large numbers of dead and wounded in Gaza, it would not have rushed and dealt the final blow to Islamic Jihad,” he said. 

Children react following an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on 6 August 2022. [Getty]

“Hamas is not interested in escalation and does not see any benefit in it at this stage, in light of the movement's openness to the Arab world and the West as well,” Okal added, pointing out that the benefits secured by negotiating with Israel during previous truce agreements outweighed any potential outcomes of military escalation.

Moreover, he explains, Hamas' non-participation in the military battle was the result of a fundamental disagreement with Islamic Jihad regarding the situation in the Gaza Strip.

For the first time in the history of its conflict with Israel, Okal says, Hamas found itself playing an important role in efforts to reach a ceasefire with Egyptian, Qatari, and international mediators. 

For his part, Iyad al-Qara, a Gaza-based political expert, believes that Hamas did not join the recent battle because of its belief that this round of confrontation was not related to “national issues”, including Jerusalem, which had prompted Hamas to launch the ‘Sword of Jerusalem’ in May 2021.

"Hamas' military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, had asked PIJ leaders, including Tayseer al-Jaabari and Khalid Mansour, to exercise the utmost caution due to information of an impending Israeli assassination campaign"

"The Islamic Jihad movement was involved in this battle for reasons related to its prisoners, which did not require Hamas to enter into a military confrontation with Israel," al-Qara said.

“Hamas relied on the opinions of the majority of Palestinians, who do not want to enter into a new war with Israel, at least in the current stage, amid signs of easing the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip,” he added. 

However, he explained, Hamas gave the PIJ freedom to choose how to respond to the assassination of its military commander in Gaza.

Hassan Abdo, another Gaza-based political expert, has a different opinion, believing that Hamas' non-participation in the battle was a good opportunity for the PIJ to demonstrate its military capabilities.

"Islamic Jihad has proven that it is able to confront the Israeli army without anyone participating in the fighting," he told The New Arab, explaining that the Al-Quds Brigades demonstrated its advanced military capabilities by launching 130 missiles within 10 minutes at Tel Aviv and the towns in the ‘Gaza envelope’ during the last battle.

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Iranian roots

Although Iran finances both Islamic Jihad and Hamas and assists them in their military development, the two movements differ in their degree of affiliation with Iranian ideology.

According to Hamas officials, the group appreciates the Iranian role in developing the movement's military wing and supporting it financially and logistically. It also receives engineers affiliated with the movement and trains them to manufacture advanced missiles locally with limited capabilities.

However, Iran does not have a direct role in the timing of Hamas' escalations against Israel, whether it be launching operations or reaching a ceasefire.

“The Iranian Republic is one of the movement's most important supporters, but it does not decide on our behalf when we must face the occupation or when we take a fighter's rest,” a source close to Hamas told The New Arab.

"Although Iran finances both Islamic Jihad and Hamas and assists them in their military development, the two movements differ in their degree of affiliation"

"Field facts are the masters of the situation for Hamas, and that is based on the estimates of military and political officials only, without external interference," they added.

The source believes that this situation does not apply to Islamic Jihad, which is considered an extension of Iran in the occupied Palestinian territories and is under direct orders from their "Iranian brothers”.

"Islamic Jihad was fully aware that neither the timing nor the conditions were appropriate to engage in a battle with the enemy, however, it decided to break with the resistance and to strike Israel without consulting with the resistance factions,” the source said.

Nonetheless, they explained, Hamas provided a suitable fighting environment for PIJ without taking responsibility for firing rockets at Israel. The PIJ rejected this, the source added, and considered themselves capable of fighting alone without any help.

Sally Ibrahim is The New Arab's correspondent from Gaza