The truce between Israel and the Islamic Jihad holds firm after tensions flared in Gaza on August 7. And while the three-day conflict took place in a familiar setting, Hamas, the de facto leadership in Gaza since 2007, observed Israel’s advances from the sidelines. Publicly, Hamas expressed solidarity with the Islamic Jihad, but the decision to stay out highlights a prudent shift in strategy from within the movement. In addition, it paints a rather interesting picture of the limits to Iran’s influence over both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.
On August 1, Israeli security forces arrested Bassam al-Saadi, the head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Jenin, West Bank. The arrest followed three tense days in southern Gaza as the Islamic Jihad vowed to avenge the arrest of al-Saadi. Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) issued a high alert in the southern region and closed all roads leading to the Gaza strip. On August 5, Israel’s air force assassinated Iranian backed-Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s (PIJ) northern Gaza commander Taysir al-Jabari. On August 7, another air strike killed Khaled Mansour, a counterpart of al-Jabari in southern Gaza. Following the assassinations, PIJ launched over 1100 rockets at Israel, of which 200 landed in Gaza. At 11:30 pm on August 7, an Egyptian-mediated ceasefire came into effect, following which the Israeli security agencies reopened the Erez crossing from Gaza for Palestinians working in Israel. Chief of staff Aviv Kochavi and the intelligence unit Shin bet director Ronen Bar jointly led the 66-hour long operation.
The narrative among field analysts in Israel is one of jubilation. A tactical accomplishment with minor collateral damage as compared to the eleven-day crisis in May 2021. However, over the course of the operation, media outlets in the Arab world moved swiftly to put out official statements by the GCC countries condemning the air strikes in Gaza. The State of Qatar was the first to express “the need for the international community to move urgently to stop the repeated attacks by the occupation against civilians, especially women and children.”At the emergency UNSC council meeting on August 8, Cairo, despite having brokered peace, had its Ambassador Osama Abdel Khalek berate Israel for its unwarranted use of force in Gaza. Abdel Khalek noted,“Egypt will never abandon its historic responsibilities vis-a-vis the Palestinian brotherly people and our efforts [to build] a better future which we all look forward to when peace, security, and stability prevail in the Middle East.”And yet, despite diplomatic parlays, a trust deficit continues to stall peace in the region.
Operation Breaking Dawn did weaken the Islamic Jihad but, more importantly, avoided further escalation by keeping Hamas out of the fight. Fundamentally, the Islamic Jihad and Hamas are rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood movement, but they’ve evolved in their vision. Hamas has over the years indicated its willingness to work with Israel and has welcomed an Israeli-led policy over the past year to issue more work permits to Palestinians. However, experts argue that the absence of Hamas from the playing field was in response to the Islamic Jihad’s consistent challenge and threat to their leadership in Gaza. But the Islamic Jihad is a relatively weak organization. And yet, within 48 hours, Israel wiped out its senior military command in Gaza. This could not have been a spur of the moment attack due to PIJ’s threat to fire anti-tank missiles into Israel after al-Saadi’s arrest. The execution of Khaled Mansour, the man who spearheaded PIJ’s rocket capabilities and a dominant figure within the movement (more important than Jabari), was a pre-emptive accomplishment. In addition, the Islamic Jihads’ pro-Iran policy was a serious concern to the security establishment in Israel. The movement elected an Iran-favoured candidate Ziad al-Nakhala as the movement’s secretary general in 2018. Nakhala’s presence in Iran during the conflict is a testimony of its engagement with the Shi’ite state, unlike Hamas, which maintains a cooperative relationship with Tehran. Israel’s policy to deter Iran’s influence in Gaza may have temporarily succeeded, but this does not alter the reality in Gaza.
Israel will have to navigate a new reality with Hamas no longer the sole agency to deal with in Gaza. Armed groups affiliated with Fatah, Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Popular Resistance Committees and Nasser Salah a-Din Brigades joined hands with the Islamic Jihad to target Israel in the rocket air strikes. Also, Israel eliminated Jabari’s predecessor Baha Abu al-Ata in a similar fashion in November 2019. A more strategic and permanent solution with trusted regional partners is crucial. And any shift in policy should address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which is beyond breaking point. In the absence of a fully functioning state, lip service in the Arab world for the protection and promotion of rights for the Palestinians in Israel has done more harm given the existing state of Gaza’s economy and healthcare.
Maria Elizabeth Joseph is Programme Officer for International Relations at Ananta Aspen Centre, where She leads the West Asia and Europe portfolio.