From the moment Israeli Air Force jets attacked in Gaza this week — 2:24 on Tuesday morning — Israeli officials were at pains to emphasise that this is just about Islamic Jihad and not Hamas.
The main Palestinian Islamist movement which controls Gaza with an iron fist never had more staunch defenders.
Even on Wednesday afternoon, when multiple salvoes of rockets were landing on Israel and Hamas was taking joint responsibility as part of the “Gaza Operations Center,” and as activists in Hamas’s social media groups were claiming that the longer-range rockets launched at Tel Aviv were theirs, the Israeli message remained the same.
In one briefing with reporters, in what sounded like a slip of the tongue, the IDF’s new spokesperson Rear-Admiral Daniel Hagari even said that “Israel’s policy is achieving stability. That’s Hamas’ strategy as well.”
But Admiral Hagari is not wrong. For Israel, the most crucial element of “Operation Shield and Arrow” is not eliminating the three Islamic Jihad operatives who were killed in Tuesday morning’s strikes but ensuring that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad don’t join forces, under Iranian direction, and that this round of warfare in Gaza doesn’t escalate into a multiple-front confrontation.
One of the three targets, Khalil Salah al Bahtini, the commander of PIJ’s northern sector in the Gaza Strip, is the fourth man to fill that role in the past four years. Just like his predecessors, he was killed in an Israeli strike.
Hamas is a proscribed organisation. Anyone who expresses support for it can expect to be dealt with (Photo: Getty Images)
The job security of his successor is assured. It’s a job you hold for life. A short one. The other two targets are not particularly senior either.
The threat the relatively small organisation poses to Israel is not inconsiderable but it shouldn’t be exaggerated either. PIJ exists mainly as an Iranian proxy that challenges the other Palestinian factions, particularly Hamas.
It has two advantages for the Iranians – it is fully funded by Tehran and therefore cannot entertain its own strategies and it has no responsibility for Palestinian civilian lives.
Hamas leaders on the other hand, especially its boss in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, have aspirations to be the leaders of the Palestinian people. This means at the very least a certain level of responsibility.
There’s a symmetry here between Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Both are “resistance” movements that are loath to give up their massive military arsenals and the power that come with it.
They both enjoy massive levels of funding from Iran, though they have other sources of income as well. But both need a certain level of civilian support from their local constituencies and must balance their desire to carry out attacks on Israel with the need for periods of calm in between during which civilian infrastructure can be rebuilt.
As one senior Israeli official put it: “When Israel allows 20,000 workers to leave Gaza daily, that’s a bonus for Hamas who get more money coming into Gaza and their own coffers. But it also means they have a lot more to lose by allowing another escalation.
The same is, of course, true for Hezbollah on a wider scale, because they’re the real power in Lebanon, an entire country.”
Hezbollah has not officially launched attacks on Israel from Lebanon since the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, for this reason exactly.
All the rockets launched during this period have been ostensibly by Palestinian organisations. Though they couldn’t have done so without Hezbollah turning a blind eye. Hamas has acted in the same way in Gaza since June 2021.
This has served Israel as well. Dealing with smaller Palestinian factions means that the escalations are at the briefest flurries of two or three days of rockets. Not something that seriously impacts on the Israeli economy or paralyses large parts of the country for prolonged periods.
It was the preferred strategy of Benjamin Netanyahu in his previous term as prime minister. Neither Naftali Bennett nor Yair Lapid changed it in their brief interim periods in office and it remains his strategy now.
It gives both sides a level of flexibility and deniability. Israel can choose when it holds Hamas responsible for any projectile flying over from Gaza and it can choose when to focus only on the smaller organisations.
Likewise Hamas can transition from bystander to participant to negotiator. As it did this week, when it pressed PIJ on Wednesday to accept a ceasefire.
The question is how long can this last?
As this column is being written, there is news that a ceasefire is about to be announced. Just after the standard final salvo at 8pm, just in time for the television news programmes. If so, each side will be able to proclaim victory.
Netanyahu will say that his government has proven that it is tough on terror in Gaza by eliminating three mid-level PIJ operatives.
He will have assuaged, at least temporarily, the demands from his far-right coalition partners, Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party, for direct action. PIJ will say that it proved it is the true force of Palestinian resistance by launching 300 rockets on Israel.
And Hamas will have it both ways. They will claim to have been part of the campaign while Israel can say it wasn’t and leave it unscathed.
But Iran will not give up. Its proxies have massive missile capabilities to Israel’s north and south, and are trying to build up a similar capability in the West Bank. They will look for another opportunity to execute simultaneous attacks from Gaza, Lebanon and Syria.
Some within the Israeli security establishment are arguing that Israel should take the initiative and launch an all-out strike on these Iranian posts.
It would mean taking Israel into an at least weeks-long offensive, during which the country would be paralysed, but that would be better they argue than waiting for it to happen at Iran’s initiative.
The counter-argument is that by prolonging that moment, Israel is constantly improving its missile-defence systems and that for diplomatic reasons, it would be better to be seen as acting in defence. That would also give
Israel more breathing space to destroy as much as possible of the missile arsenals before facing intense international pressure for a ceasefire.
For now, Netanyahu is not prepared to go beyond a limited operation against the smallest and weakest link in Iran’s chain. If Israel goes any further, it will not be by his choice.