Islamic Jihad's challenge to Hamas in Gaza

Islamic Jihad's challenge to Hamas in Gaza
Hamas has so far been able to keep its smaller rival in check, but its influence is undeniable, writes Austin Bodetti.
6 min read
31 August, 2018
PIJ militants can provide Hamas with plausible deniability in their operations against Israel [AFP]

While Hamas has become synonymous with the Gaza Strip in the years since its 2006 election victory and subsequent routing of rival Fatah from the coastal enclave in internecine fighting a year later, one of Hamas' lesser-known peers has largely escaped notice amid clashes between Hamas and Israel.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad, or PIJ, shares with Hamas the fundamental objective of fighting Israel. PIJ, however, has felt freer to launch attacks responding to Israel's ongoing blockade because, unlike Hamas, PIJ has no role in governing Gaza or rebuilding it in the event of the all-but-guaranteed Israeli counterattacks.

As tensions between Hamas and Israel increase, PIJ may prove the wildcard that triggers yet another war in Gaza.

At first glance, PIJ would appear a sideshow to Hamas. PIJ has only a few thousand fighters, compared with the tens of thousands in the Hamas ranks, and much of PIJ's arsenal comprises cheap, simple rockets. Even so, these limitations have rarely prevented PIJ from striking Israel over the past two decades. In 2002, a PIJ car bomb in the Israeli city of Afula killed seventeen and injured thirty-eight. In 2012, PIJ rockets reached as far as Tel Aviv, Israel's second-largest city and the heart of its economy.

In fact, PIJ's smaller size may allow it to act without attracting the public scrutiny that greets Hamas attacks on Israel.

"Since Hamas is the primary 'culprit' - in the eyes of Israel - there is less attention, media and otherwise, on PIJ and PIJ might feel more free to initiate a conflict," Mia Swart, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, told The New Arab.

Whereas Hamas sometimes tries to mitigate conflict with Israel - conflict which tends to result in the destruction of not only Hamas' military and political holdings but also Gaza's civilian infrastructure - PIJ has less to fear.

Gazans who lose their homes and livelihoods to Israeli airstrikes will likely blame Hamas, not PIJ, freeing PIJ from paramilitary operations' political consequences.

"It certainly has fewer constraints, in the sense that it is not both a terror group and a government the way that Hamas is," said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice-president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish conservative pro-Israel think-tank and advocacy organisation. "Indeed, it has no responsibility for the Gaza Strip. This is what constrains Hamas at times," added Schanzer, who is also author of the book Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine.

Hamas has a real partnership with other smaller parties and groups and they take this into account in their political and military practice

PIJ further benefits from its closeness with Iran, which has billed itself as leader of an anti-Israeli coalition, "the Axis of Resistance". Though Hamas also enjoys patronage from Iran, that relationship suffered from disagreements over Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Intent on emphasising its Palestinian and Sunni credentials, Hamas hopes to avoid becoming as dependent on Iran, a non-Arab Shia theocracy, as PIJ has in recent years.

For its part, PIJ looks to the Iranian revolution as inspiration for its own struggle. Iranian-trained PIJ fighters coordinate their operations with the Quds Force and Hizballah. Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth claimed that Iran funded PIJ with thirty million dollars in 2018, almost half what Hamas received this year, even though PIJ amounts to only a fraction of Hamas' size.

Unlike in Lebanon and Yemen, where Iran only patronises Hizballah and the Houthis, the Islamic Republic supports competing proxies in Palestine to stop either from becoming too independent or powerful. Iran has perfected this same strategy in Iraq and Syria, where it has organised dozens of militias outside the control of the Iranian-backed Iraqi and Syrian governments.

If Hamas ignored Iranian encouragement to attack Israel, Iran could just ask the same of PIJ or its other Palestinian proxies. In May, Israeli newspaper Haaretz speculated that Iranian pressure led PIJ to attack Israel against Hamas' wishes during the recent protests in Gaza.

Despite Iranian-fuelled factionalism in Palestine, experts have expressed scepticism that PIJ could escalate the Israeli conflict or follow Iranian directives without Hamas' tacit permission.

"Hamas and Islamic Jihad operate under a joint operations room," said Mustafa Ayyash, the Salzburg-based director of the Palestinian news agency Gaza Now. "The decision to attack Israel only ever comes from this operations room because it's clear that they are in agreement on everything. That said, Hamas has significant popularity in Gaza and gets the final say."

Hamas has control of the situation and that PIJ cannot easily start a conflict unilaterally without Hamas' knowledge and approval

Swart added that "PIJ cannot take action outside of the 'common interest'... The various groups in Gaza share responsibility for security. Hamas has a real partnership with other smaller parties and groups and they take this into account in their political and military practice."

PIJ has telegraphed its independence from Iran in the past. Asharq al-Awsat reported that Iran stopped funding PIJ in 2015 over differences of opinion on Iranian involvement in the Yemeni war, resembling the dispute between Hamas and Iran over the Syrian war.

The two factions often cooperate, and PIJ's independence can allow Hamas plausible deniability. If Hamas wants to strike Israel without claiming responsibility, it can give PIJ tacit permission to conduct suicide attacks or launch rockets. Israel tends to blame Hamas for the attacks anyway.

In many ways, PIJ depends on Hamas as much as it does Iran. "PIJ is small, which limits its ability to strike Israel," said Schanzer. "Moreover, it operates within Gaza because Hamas allows it to do so. This means that if the group violates the spoken or unspoken agreements that it has with Hamas, which seeks a monopoly on violence in the Gaza Strip, then friction can occur."

Ayyash noted that, while Hamas and PIJ disagree about the potential for a comprehensive peace treaty with Israel, they "agree on at least 90 percent of the issues".

For now, PIJ seems to be falling in line behind Hamas. On July 14, PIJ agreed to a Hamas-organised ceasefire with Israel, quashing speculation of another war. "My impression is certainly that Hamas has control of the situation and that PIJ cannot easily start a conflict unilaterally without Hamas' knowledge and approval," concluded Swart. "There is also some overlap and collaboration between the two. The two groups are not in direct competition with each other."

Hamas has so far succeeded in keeping PIJ in check. Whether PIJ will follow the wishes of its larger rival forever remains a question to which few have the answer.

Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist focusing on conflict in the greater Middle East. 

He has reported from Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan and Thailand, and his writing has appeared in Motherboard, The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, Wired, and Yahoo News.