Gaza Conflagration Highlights the Differences Between Hamas and Islamic Jihad
by Hillel Frisch
The latest conflagration between Israel and Gaza, which erupted within hours of the killing of Islamic Jihad senior commander Baha Abu al-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 in Gaza to date.
While Hamas views the use of violence as a means of increasing the volume of trade with Israel and securing the inflow of Qatari money, both of which enhance the welfare of its hardcore members 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 a fish in the water in a society that is almost exclusively Sunni, with most of its members being truly devout. If there are any Gazan Shiites, they keep their beliefs and rituals strictly to themselves.
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’ retention of control of Gaza. Hamas is also consistently the major force in the institutions of higher learning, labor organizations, and other social groups.
There is a world of difference in this regard between Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which is known for its strong links to Iran and has no popular base. Though valued for its sacrifices, most Gazans suspect its members of being Shiites in disguise. A type 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 have intensified.
This is why in 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 al-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 that 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 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 of who wags Islamic Jihad’s tail, the reasons behind its activities, and the ways its strategy contradicts Hamas’ 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’s demise and the killing of its founding leader 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 program, and Hamas because it wants to maintain power in Gaza and needs to cater to the welfare of its population, or at least its hardcore 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.
Professor 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.
A version of this article was originally published by The BESA Center.