A ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the second-largest militant group in the Gaza Strip, appeared to be holding this week, ending three days of cross-border fighting that killed dozens of Palestinians.
In Rafah, the desert town at the intersection of the Gaza Strip, Israel and Egypt, a stream of empty Palestinian petrol tankers and flatbed trucks rumbled through the border gate towards the Israeli crossing for commercial goods; after a week of tensions, the return of fresh produce and fuel to the besieged territory was welcome.
The weekend’s surprise Israeli airstrikes, codenamed Operation Breaking Dawn, marked the sixth round of fighting between Gaza’s militant groups and Israel since Hamas took over the strip in 2007, and the worst episode of violence in the coastal enclave since an 11-day war last May. The bloodshed did not escalate into another all-out conflict, however, owing to a major gamble: that Hamas would resist being drawn into the fray.
The bet paid off handsomely for Israel’s caretaker prime minister, Yair Lapid, who is enjoying a bounce in the polls before the country holds its fifth tightly contested election in less than four years this November.
Islamic Jihad fired at least 1,000 rockets into southern Israel in retaliation for what Israel described as a “pre-emptive” offensive to thwart a planned major attack by the militant group before Egypt and Qatar brokered a ceasefire on Sunday night. Before then, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) managed to kill two senior Islamic Jihad commanders, on top of arresting another, Bassam al-Saadi, in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin last week. Saadi’s arrest sparked the current tensions.
Sixty people in Israel suffered minor injuries, but the majority of Islamic Jihad’s projectiles were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defence system, leading Israel’s defence establishment to hail the operation as a major success, and boosting the credentials of centrist Lapid, a former television show host.
As ever, the toll in Gaza was much greater. According to the local authorities, 47 Palestinians, among them six children, were killed, 360 people were injured, and more than 650 housing units were damaged over three days.
Though Hamas issued statements announcing its support for Islamic Jihad, it refrained from intervening. As a social movement and de facto government responsible for the strip’s 2.2 million people, Hamas has less room to manoeuvre than Islamic Jihad, which is backed directly by Iran and focusses solely on armed resistance to Israel.
Hamas is also still recovering from the 2021 war, and not ready for a new round of conflict. The group is loath to give Israel a reason to cancel the 14,000 Israeli work permits issued for Gaza since last year, or shut down the more consistent supply of electricity that currently reaches the strip’s sole power plant; both measures have made small but significant improvements to quality of life for the area’s impoverished population.
In an interview in his office in Gaza City on Tuesday, Basem Naim, head of Hamas’ political division, dismissed reports of friction between the two groups after Breaking Dawn.
“The leadership of Hamas and Jihad works together. Many Palestinian factions are present in Gaza and we don’t see them as rivals … Some are Islamist, some are Communist, but we have the same goal, which is to get rid of the occupation,” he said.
“Maybe they were in the front, and we stayed at the back, but we didn’t leave Jihad to stand alone. It was not in our interest to escalate this time; this is one battle of many. Responses must be weighed against many complex factors.”
The Israeli operation had been calculated to serve domestic political ends, he added.
“Negotiations with Israel over prisoners [including Bassam al-Saadi, the Islamic Jihad commander arrested in the West Bank] were continuing right up until an hour before the Israeli attack started … Jihad fired rockets at Israel last month and there was no response. So while we are not surprised by any Israeli aggression, we did not expect it now in this form, assassinating Jihad leaders.”
Commenting on Naim’s claim, spokesperson for the Israeli embassy in London, Ohad Zemet, said: “The operation started in order to eliminate imminent and concrete threats by the Islamic Jihad terrorist organisation. There are clear statements from senior Islamic Jihad officials issuing those threats, supported by their actions on the ground.”
Citing army sources, local media reported on Wednesday that Islamic Jihad had planned anti-tank missiles at cars in Israeli in retaliation for Saadi’s arrest.
On the Palestinian street, it is not yet clear what impact the fighting has had on Islamic Jihad’s popularity. At a mosque in Gaza City known to be affiliated with the group, several worshippers said the recent fighting and the strip’s dire economic situation, would continue to strengthen the movement’s public support.
But in Rafah, where an airstrike killed Islamic Jihad commander Khaled Mansour, two more fighters and five civilians, the mood was more hostile. Mohammed Moussa, a nurse at a small hospital in the town, said the facility struggled to cope with the aftermath of the Israeli attack on Saturday. There were only seven empty beds available for 48 injured people, and a 14-year-old boy had died of preventable causes because staff could not treat him in time.
“Islamic Jihad support here has declined after this round of fighting. People are looking at their capabilities compared with Hamas, and there’s no competition,” said a local man who gave his name as Khaled.
“I saw some Islamic Jihad supporters after the Israelis killed Mansour, and I told them, ‘You are losers; you handed the guy to the occupation, and you didn’t say anything, you didn’t do anything, you just shed tears.’”
Few expect that negotiations with Israel after the latest fighting will significantly change the status quo in the Gaza Strip, where the 15-year-old Israeli-Egyptian blockade has left about 50% of the population unemployed and turned electricity and clean water into scarce commodities. Peace talks are nonexistent, and the next flare-up is never too far away.
“It’s not the first time we have had to deal with something like this,” said Mousa, the Rafah nurse. “You just have to keep going.”