May 25, 2016

Islamic Jihad’s Attacks, Hamas’ Dilemma

In by far the sharpest escalation since late 2008, scores of rockets have been fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel during recent days following Israel’s killing of the Gaza-based leader of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) Zuhair al-Qaisi and one of his lieutenants. Al-Qaisi was in the last stages of planning a major terror attack when he was killed.

The rocket attacks, creating a dilemma for Gaza’s Hamas rulers, are mainly being carried out by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad with involvement from the smaller PRC.

From Hamas’ standpoint the escalation comes at an unwelcome time. The movement is in the midst of a tricky political process whereby it is seeking to extricate itself from the regional bloc led by Iran and to realign with the Sunni rulers of Egypt and Qatar. This move comes as a result of both problems and opportunities opened up by political upheavals in the Arab world — especially the largely Islamist revolution in Egypt — and by Iran’s backing for the Syrian government’s assault on the largely Sunni Arab population in the civil war there.

This already difficult transformation is further complicated by the fact that Hamas is now in the midst of an internal power struggle. The rulers of Gaza are pursuing a policy opposed by the official Hamas leadership of Khaled Mashaal, who rules over nothing at all. The battle is over whether Egypt or Iran is to be Hamas’ patron.

In the midst of this complex situation the escalation and rocket fire has erupted.

The dilemma from Hamas’ point of view is as follows: until now, the impressive performance of Israel’s Iron Dome system has minimized Israeli casualties and thus enabled Israel to calibrate its response accordingly. But if Israeli civilians are killed, the government may well opt for a significant ground invasion. Consequently, if Gaza’s rulers continue to let Islamic Jihad and the PRC escalate the situation, at a certain point an Israeli ground incursion will become inevitable.

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About Jonathan Spyer

Dr. Jonathan Spyer is Director of the Rubin Center (formerly the GLORIA Center), IDC Herzliya, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010) and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post newspaper. Spyer holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master’s Degree in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His reporting on the war in Syria and Iraq has been published in a number of major news outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Times, Weekly Standard and many others. His blog can be followed at: