Gaza, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad

Rockets are fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel on November 13, 2019. (Anas Baba/AFP)

Update from AIJAC

Update 11/19 #03

This Update deals with the Israeli conflict with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organisation in Gaza over the past few days, which saw 450 rockets and mortar shells fired into Israel from Gaza after Israel killed Baha Abu al Atta, a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) commander responsible for multiple rocket and border attacks against Israel in recent months. What is notable about this conflict compared to past Gaza conflagrations is that Hamas, which is the de facto ruler of Gaza, has neither been firing its missiles nor being targetted by the IDF, as this Update highlights.

While an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire is currently supposed to be in place, some rocket fire from Gaza is continuing and Israel had begun responding with counter-strikes, and it is unclear if it will hold.

We lead with an original translation of an analysis of what is really happening on a strategic level from Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin, head of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. He explains the strong justification for the Israeli strike on Abu Al-Ata, and why Israel has chosen to focus on PIJ and not Hamas in the current battle, in a break from the past policy of holding Hamas responsible for all violence that emanates from Gaza. He also explains why the current violence should be seen as an integral part of the “Iranian expeditionary war” to target Israel from all sides. For all of Yadlin’s strategic and tactical insights,  CLICK HERE.

Next up is Israeli academic Hillel Frisch tackling the differences and tensions between PIJ and Hamas in some more detail. He notes that the two groups use violence for different ends – Hamas as extortion to increase the flow of funds to Gazans, for whom it is responsible as a governing body; PIJ seeking confrontation for its own sake in service of Iranian foreign policy objectives. He notes that, unlike Hamas, PIJ has no popular base of support, but while PIJ creates problems for Hamas, the latter is unable to crack down too much on the former because Hamas still needs a good relationship with Iran, PIJ’s patron and paymaster. For the rest of Frisch’s analysis of the tensions between the two groups, CLICK HERE. Another very good analysis of Hamas’ dilemmas in the current fighting comes from Palestinian affairs journalist Khaled Abu Toameh. 

Finally, we bring a report from the Israelis living in the Gaza envelope concerning their feelings about both the current violence and living with the constant fear that mass rocket attacks could erupt at any time. Jacob Magid of the Times of Israel speaks to residents of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, an Israeli agricultural community just a few hundred metres from the Gaza border. Magid finds residents struggling to find normalcy under attack – but also expressing why they still feel at home in this community under threat. For their varied views and thoughts on a complex and difficult situation, CLICK HERE.

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When there are no pressure levers

Amos Yadlin

Yediot Ahronot, November 14, 2019

Top Palestinian Islamic Jihad Commander Baha Abu al-‘Ata, killed in an Israeli strike on Monday. 

The targeted counterterrorist killing of Baha Abu al-‘Ata was a necessary and appropriate move, the result of an intelligence effort and combined operations of the security forces.

In his role as commander of the Gaza northern brigade of Islamic Jihad’s al-Quds Brigades, and in fact as a strong man of the Gaza Strip, he planned attacks and acted to undermine security in the southern country, while continuing to hamper the chances of reaching an arrangement with the regime and improving the situation of Gazans.

Terminology is important.

This is not a “liquidation”, but a targeted counterterrorism killing action against someone who is a ticking bomb and orchestrates attacks that ends up hurting Israel and killing civilians and soldiers.

Counterterrorism by harming or targeting someone who orchestrates or directs it is a legitimate act, a moral imperative, and the IDF must maintain it as an effective tool for fighting terrorism in all sectors.

Contrary to the messages released yesterday on “non-return to the assassination policy,” it is important to understand that targeted killing is a tool necessary in fighting terrorism.

It is good that the IDF chief of staff did not hesitate to state in his statement to the media that the targeted counterterrorism strike policy is a necessary and effective lever against Islamic Jihad.

It is important that terrorist organizations know and internalize that targeted counterterrorist strikes are not an option that has come off the table, but an integral part of Israel’s military capabilities.

In recent years, in the various arenas in which Israel faces its enemies, there has been a confusion between a strategically significant event and a tactical one.

And from a strategic point of view, in the case of the liquidation of Abu Al-Ata, this is not a fundamental change in the basic situation in Gaza.

Organizations in the Gaza Strip continue to pose a significant military threat to Israeli lifestyle and security.

Continued intensification of terrorist organizations will eventually require a much broader military and political campaign than is taking place today.

Hence, the current round – at this stage – is not a strategic campaign. As far as Israel is concerned, the achievement defined for the operation is spot on and achieved immediately at the beginning, and therefore it aims to end it.

The IDF choice to focus on Islamic Jihad, rather than Hamas, as a governing address is a change from the multi-year policy that places a total responsibility on Hamas with regard to any military action against Israel from the Gaza Strip.

Unlike in past conflicts, Israel forces have confined their retaliation over the past few days solely to Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets, and not hitting Hamas. 

Thus, Hamas has a considerable leeway compared to what we have known in the past.

Hamas has restrained itself and so far it has avoided taking part in the fighting. This can be understood in light of the realization that it was not damaged by the price levied by Israel and even benefited from the damage to Islamic Jihad.

Hamas understands well that Abu al-‘Ata’s activities have hurt its interests and those of Gaza.

Israel and Hamas, despite their hostility and material conflict, have a common interest in preventing escalation.

However, this is a dynamic that is still evolving, and it is always easier to plan the beginning of an operation than its end.

It is important to understand that the difficulty of ending the event stems precisely from its restriction to Islamic Jihad.

Israel has lost the effectiveness of its termination mechanisms: exerting massive military pressure on the Gaza Strip is not possible for fear of Hamas entering the campaign, while Islamic Jihad is less affected by Egyptian pressure, does not want regulation and does not feel responsible for Gaza residents.

Islamic Jihad also finds it difficult to stop the conflict before it achieves significant damage and the appearance of revenge and victory against Israel.

Hamas is the key to the Islamic Jihad restraint, and a variety of non-military tools must be employed on it – closing crossings, stopping the Qatari money and removing electricity from the Gaza Strip.

Hamas is not yet ready to end the conflict, and has not yet fully exercised its ability to curb Islamic Jihad.

On the other hand, significant events in the exchanges between Israel and Islamic Jihad can also drag Hamas into the campaign – which will take on completely different dimensions.

The Iranian cloud is hovering above the events, as in every other arena around Israel.

Even if Iran has not been tactically involved in Islamic Jihad decisions in recent months on the use of force against Israel, the resources it has invested in the organization over time are those that allow it to threaten Israeli citizens for up to 80 km from the Gaza Strip.

For this reason, too, the IDF should seize the opportunity to harness jihad’s capabilities and intensify it, as a single and clear message to Tehran. Damaging the terrorist organization must be an essential element of any strategy of fighting and ending combat with terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip.

And the next day, even after Egypt mediates and succeeds in bringing about a cease-fire, sooner or later, the issue of the Gaza Strip in particular, and the Iranian expeditionary war on all sides of Israel as a whole, will also be the opening of the next Israeli government, whatever its composition.

Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin

Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin is Executive Director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS. Previously he served more than 40 year in the Israel Defense Forces, nine of which as a member of the IDF General Staff. From 2006-2010, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yadlin served as the IDF’s chief of Military Intelligence.

(Translated from Hebrew by AIJAC).


Gaza Conflagration Highlights the Differences between Hamas and Islamic Jihad

By 

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 1,342, November 13, 2019

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Unlike Islamic Jihad, both Hamas and Israel have an interest in keeping the present round of hostilities short. The question is whether in the fog of battle, the two sides will succeed in achieving their mutual goal.

The latest conflagration, which erupted within hours of the killing of Islamic Jihad senior commander Biha Abu Ata, underscores the crucial differences between Hamas, Gaza’s ultimate ruler, and Islamic Jihad – the second strongest force in the Strip.

Most important are the two terror groups’ divergent strategic objectives, at least since the summer 2014 confrontation between Hamas and Israel – the longest and fiercest round of hostilities over Gaza to date.

While Hamas views the use of violence as a means for increasing the volume of trade with Israel and securing the inflow of Qatari money, both of which enhance the welfare of its hard core and the Gaza population at large, Islamic Jihad seeks fully-fledged confrontation as part of an Iranian strategy to deflect attention from its Syrian military buildup and regional expansion.

These strategic goals reflect the differences in the political and organizational makeup of the two terror groups. A Sunni mass-based organization that is clearly identified with the wider Muslim Brotherhood movement, Hamas operates like fish in water in a society that is almost exclusively Sunni, with most of its members being truly devout. If there are any Gazan Shiites, they maintain their beliefs and rituals strictly to themselves.

Unlike Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a purely military organisation with no popular base, nor need to worry about the welfare of Gazans. 

In devising its strategy, Hamas must take into consideration this popular base, which at the very least comprises the 50,000 men and women whose salaries depend on Hamas’s retention of control of Gaza. Hamas is also consistently the major force in the institutions of higher learning, labor organizations and other social organizations.

There is a world of difference in this regard between Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which is known for its strong links to Iran and which has no popular base. Though valued for its sacrifices, most Gazans suspect its members as being Shiites in disguise.  A form of love-hate relationship thus prevails between the general population and Islamic Jihad, a disposition that has become more pronounced as the conflicts between Shiites and Sunnis in Syria, Iraq and Yemen intensified.

This is why election after election in Gaza universities and trade unions, as well as repeated polling surveys, Islamic Jihad secures a mere 2-3% support. By contrast, Hamas and the rival Fatah movement have rarely secured less than 15%; and nothing has changed in this regard over the past three decades.

A telling indication of Islamic Jihad’s limited popularity was afforded by the real-time airing of Abu Ata’s funeral procession just hours after his killing, where it was hard to count more than 100 participants. (Of course, the extremely paltry count is partially due to most of its members being either busy firing rockets or hiding in underground tunnels, which is why participants were not masked to hide their identities.)

Despite the façade of unity the “Joint Command of the Palestinian Factions” sought to emit, the only flags in the funeral were the black background flags and banners, thus indicating that not only is Islamic Jihad not a mass-based organization but it is also relatively isolated.

Though these features might be construed as limiting the luster of Islamic Jihad, they are a boon for Tehran. For one thing, Islamic Jihad’s paltry popular base means its dependence on Iran is all the greater. For another, the organization can operate purely as a fighting arm without the need to take into account the welfare of the Gaza population.

For Hamas, of course, none of the above is new. Its leaders are keenly aware who wags Islamic Jihad’s tail, the reasons behind its activities, and the ways its strategy contradicts Hamas’s current agenda.

By the same token, Hamas cannot afford to bring an immediate end to the rockets. After all, targeting high-level commanders is a red line for Hamas too, especially when this comes as a complete surprise rather than in retaliation for specific terror attacks.

At a deeper level, Hamas can only constrain rather than stop Islamic Jihad because it needs Iran as well. ISIS demise and the killing of its founding leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, bring home to Hamas that the power of a terrorist organization depends to a large extent on the quality and number of its state allies. ISIS had none and hence its demise. Hamas can hardly be choosy since most of the Sunni Arab states oppose its activities (probably because of its affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood), while a much more sympathetic Turkey has its own concerns in Syria.

This in turn means that, at least in the short-run, Israel and Hamas have a mutual interest: to keep the conflagration short and not too lethal. Israel because it does not want to deflect attention away from Tehran’s expansionism and nuclear strive; Hamas because it wants to maintain power in Gaza and needs to cater to the welfare of its population, or at least its hard core base.

The question of course is whether in the fog of battle, the two sides will be able to control events to meet their common goals.

Prof. Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.


At a Gaza border kibbutz, there’s no such thing as returning to ‘normal’

Nahal Oz residents describe bleak awareness that next round of violence is only a matter of time, but are adamant there’s still no place else they’d rather be

By JACOB MAGID 

Times of Israel, November 15, 2019

Don Salman in his home in Kibbutz Nahal Oz on November 14, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

KIBBUTZ NAHAL OZ — After 48 hours of non-stop rocket fire, most Israelis across the country were able to return to their normal routines Thursday morning as officials began confirming that a ceasefire had been reached between the Jewish state and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in Gaza.

In Nahal Oz, though, just a few hundred meters from the Gaza border, normal was a relative term. The streets of the kibbutz remained mostly deserted, many of the families who had fled north during the fighting had still not returned and even getting into town proved to be a challenge.

During two days of fighting, sirens were a near-constant fixture in Nahal Oz, a frequent target of rocket and mortar fire. Then on Thursday, it suddenly stopped.

“You can’t make a switch to normalcy so quickly. It’s impossible to go 180 degrees just like that,” said kibbutz spokesman Daniel Rahamim. “What’s more, we’re returning to normalcy in a context that’s not normal because we know that this quiet is only temporary.”

The fragility of the ceasefire became clear several times during the day, as Gazan terrorists fired sporadic volleys of rockets into Israel. In Netivot, a woman was speaking to the Kan public broadcaster just before 11 a.m. about her faith in God and in Israeli government’s efforts to improve her community’s situation, when a siren began to wail in the background. As she shouted at her kids to get inside and did her best to calm them down in between cries and screams, the phone disconnected.

But the red alert persisted, and this reporter, who happened to be driving by the town, realized that the siren was not just coming from the radio.  I quickly pulled over and plopped to the ground at the side of the car.

With Home Front Command still taking extra precautions against the possibility of anti-tank missile fire from the Strip, the main road leading into the kibbutz was mostly closed off, with only residents allowed in.

Kibbutz Nahal Oz on November 14, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

A detour on a poorly paved road along the community’s banana fields and avocado farms eventually brought me to the back entrance of the kibbutz.

Rahamim, the spokesman, was the only person outside at the time, and the kibbutz appeared virtually empty.

The spokesman said that roughly 30 families had left since the start of the latest round of violence, which began after the IDF’s targeted killing of top Islamic Jihad terrorist Baha Abu al-Ata early Tuesday morning. What followed Tuesday and Wednesday were roughly 450 rockets fired into Israel, dozens of which triggered sirens in Nahal Oz.

Kibbutz Nahal Oz spokesman Daniel Rahamim outside his home on November 14, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

“We encourage people to leave if they want to. This is not a place that children need to be in. It’s somewhat of a battlefield,” admitted Rahamim.

The 65-year-old spokesman said that the kibbutz leadership had been preparing for a more organized exit of most of the remaining 350 families to Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek in the north, but had put the plans on hold when news of the ceasefire broke.

Still, the streets and sidewalks were deserted. The only sound that could be heard in Nahal Oz was the occasional bird chirp.

No school, no rules

Little bikes and scooters lay untouched in front of homes; those children still here were inside their family bomb shelters.

Almost every home had a lavish garden, but who had the time over the last couple of days to pick up the oranges and limes that had fallen to the ground?

The routine that Israelis in the rest of the country had the luxury of returning to had not yet kicked in for Nahal Oz residents.

“Nobody here wonders whether there will be another round of violence. The question is only when,” Rahamim said.

An Israeli army vehicle blocks a road near Nahal Oz in the Israeli Gaza border in southern Israel, on March 25, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

For Tom Oren-Denenberg, the day after the violence has temporarily subsided is the most difficult — “because we just went through 48 hours of hell, and then it ends, and you ask, What was it all for?”

“If we had achieved some sort of agreement that would ensure longterm quiet, I would go and personally shake the prime minister’s hand. But here, all we did was take out a terrorist who can easily be replaced. That cannot be the goal in and of itself,” he argued.

It was 2:00 p.m., but the 44-year-old father-of-one was the only one in his family awake. His wife and daughter were inside the bomb shelter sleeping after a restless night full of red alert sirens.

“My daughter’s only 5-years-old, so this whole thing is kind of an adventure for her,” explained Oren-Denenberg. “There’s no school and there aren’t any rules. We can’t tell her, ‘Only 30 more minutes of screen time,’ because what else can she do [in the shelter]?”

The challenge of readjusting the family’s sleeping patterns is just another reason why he said the return to normalcy is not instantaneous.

“It takes a couple of days. Luckily we have a weekend to recuperate,” he said. “You’re at the peak of alertness during all of the sirens and explosions, but when the quiet eventually arrives, the exhaustion takes over.”

It’s easier to stay

While he said he understood families with younger kids who preferred to wait out the violence elsewhere, Oren-Denenberg said that leaving would be harder than staying.

“Experiencing what’s happening from a distance would be far worse. Plus, I feel safe here,” Oren-Denenberg said.

Asked how he doesn’t despair in the face of such a dismal reality, Rahamim said he holds out hope that the government will one day work out a diplomatic solution to a conflict that he said cannot be solved through military means.

Dovish history

The 65-year-old was not shy about his dovish political leanings and tied them to the history of the kibbutz.

Kibbutz Nahal Oz on November 14, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Nahal Oz was the first of many communities established by members of the Nahal infantry brigade. The kibbutz was founded in 1951, and received national attention five years later when its security coordinator Roi Rotberg was ambushed and brutally killed by Gaza infiltrators while patrolling the area.

Rotberg was eulogized by then IDF chief of staff Moshe Dayan, who gave a brutally pessimistic lecture on Israel’s eternal need to live by the sword in the face of a vicious enemy waiting to pounce at the moment “our tranquility blunts our alertness.”

Rahamim said some residents of the kibbutz took Dayan’s remarks as a slight at Rotberg and other members of their movement, believing that the IDF chief was suggesting that they had been naive regarding their Arab neighbors and had let their guard down. Dayan later apologized and insisted that this was not his intention.

“Fast forward 20 years, and think about transformation Dayan underwent,” Rahamim said excitedly as we sat in his living room. The military giant who told Nahal Oz residents that being perennially prepared for battle was “the decree of [their] generation” went on to play a central role in Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, believing that trading land was necessary for reconciliation with Israel’s neighbors.

Moshe Dayan eulogizes Roi Rotberg, Kibbutz Nahal Oz, April 1956 (IDF archives)

“I tell this to everyone who visits here because it’s part of our heritage,” explained Rahamim, who moved to Nahal Oz 44 years ago.

The dovish sentiment remains to this day, with over 77 percent of the residents voting for center-left parties in September’s election. However, that doesn’t mean the political makeup of Nahal Oz is homogenous.

‘We cease. They fire’

Don and Elinore Salman said they are among a handful who think differently than Rahamim, and appeared to view Gaza violence as the inevitability that Dayan had once described.

“There are only two ways for this to end: Either we’re eliminated or they’re eliminated,” Don asserted.

Reflecting on the morning’s rocket fire at Netivot, Elinore said: “This is not a ceasefire. We cease, and they fire.”

“It’s like the movie Groundhog Day. You wake up and this whole thing will happen again,” lamented Don.

“Our kids have been begging us to leave because of what’s going on, but this is our home. We don’t want to leave,” added Elinore.

Don argued that driving out of Nahal Oz might be more dangerous than staying in it. He referenced rocket fire on Tuesday that narrowly missed a moving car outside Gan Yavne. “We take that road all of the time,” he said.

Elinore was sitting on her couch calming down their dog, who wouldn’t stop barking.

“These past few days have made Lucky very crazy. He shakes, walks around in circles, goes to the bomb-shelter. The vet gave him a pill to help calm him down,” she said. “I’m not scared for me, I’m scared for my dog.”

The Salmans have been living in Nahal Oz for 49 years after making aliyah from Denver.

“We immediately found ourselves at home here. The people are kind and always checking in. Sometimes a little bit too much,” Elinore joked.

Rahamim said the draw to Nahal Oz, which has added 150 families in the past five years, is not something tangible.

A ‘Peace’ sign hangs in a field near Nahal Oz bordering Gaza, as thousands of Palestinians demonstrate near the border with Israel in the Gaza Strip, on April 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“New families tell us that when they cross the entrance [into the kibbutz], they immediately feel at home. Something in the air transmits warmth and belonging. We don’t know what it is ourselves because we’ve been here for so long,” Rahamim said of Nahal Oz’s older residents.

It’s perhaps because of this feeling that Rahamim, Oren-Denenberg and the Salmans say they would never consider leaving.

“Here, life has meaning,” explained Rahamim. “It’s Zionism. There’s nothing wrong with saying that.”