x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Hamas tries to keep rocket attacks under control as Israeli planes kill two

Gaza's rulers want agreement from armed factions such as Islamic Jihad to stop cross-border attacks against Israel, in order to maintain informal ceasefire.

Israeli soldiers stand next to a launcher, part of the Iron Dome rocket shield system that was deployed for the first time on Sunday.
Israeli soldiers stand next to a launcher, part of the Iron Dome rocket shield system that was deployed for the first time on Sunday.

GAZA CITY // Israeli warplanes killed two Palestinians in the northern Gaza Strip yesterday, only a day after the enclave's Hamas rulers won agreement from armed factions to stop cross-border attacks against Israel.

Islamic Jihad's armed wing, the Al Quds Brigade, claimed the victims were theirs, pledging in a statement that the "lives of our martyrs will not be wasted." The Israeli military said the two men were preparing to launch a rocket or mortar at Israel when the warplanes attacked.

The deaths brought to 10 the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces since an informal ceasefire between the two sides broke down more than a week ago.

Hamas has struggled to control Islamic Jihad, which has threatened the carefully calibrated arms balance between Israel and Gaza's armed factions by recently launching longer-range Qassam and Grad rockets at Israeli cities. Hamas-fired mortars usually land in empty desert.

The group had declared after a meeting with Hamas and other factions on Saturday evening that at the urging of Hamas, it would reduce military activity as long as Israel reciprocated. Khader Habib, an Islamic Jihad official, insisted, however, that it retained the right to respond to attacks by the "Zionist enemy".

Islamic Jihad appeared to enter the agreement only grudgingly. Its representatives sat far apart from Hamas officials at Saturday's meeting and according to Palestinian officials at the meeting, and they bristled when Hamas proposed forming a joint committee among political factions that would co-ordinate attacks against Israel. They interpreted the proposal as a power play to exert more control over their activities. Political observers did, too.

"Islamic Jihad is not happy with this ceasefire," said Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Gaza's Al Azhar University. "It wants to continue with the resistance."

Mr Abusada and other analysts say the recent flare-up in violence has highlighted the increasingly divergent interests between Hamas and armed groups in Gaza.

While Islamic Jihad's primary aim is to fight Israel, Hamas appears keen to stay in power and reluctant to antagonise Israel and risk another invasion by Israeli forces.

Israel's three-week military assault on Gaza two years ago killed up to 1,400 Palestinians and levelled parts of several neighbourhoods in Gaza City. The war ended with an informal ceasefire that observers say both Israel and Hamas still hope to maintain, but which Islamic Jihad has little incentive to observe.

Mr Abusada said: "Islamic Jihad has no slice of the Palestinian cake, in that they have no governing control in the West Bank or Gaza. And in both places, they are being arrested and persecuted" for their militant activities by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank.

Nasser Alewa, a political analyst and expert on armed groups in Gaza, said the recent fighting has also exposed rising friction between Hamas and Iran. The Iranian government, which supports both Hamas and Islamic Jihad, has been keen for an increase of attacks on Israel in order to deflect growing domestic unrest in both Iran and Syria, Mr Alewa believes.

"Iran, Syria, Hizbollah - they need a war in Gaza because they have pressure at home and they want to make a U-turn in their respective domestic events," he said. "But Hamas doesn't want war. If you look closely at the recent fighting, it didn't launch rockets. It only fired mortars at Israel."

Islamic Jihad, he pointed out, used rockets because "they want war, just like Syria and Iran".

Growing differences among the factions in Gaza has led some in Israel to suggest Hamas has lost control in the strip. Major General Tal Russo, said on Saturday that Hamas had "lost control of other organisations within the Gaza Strip. There is anarchy among them and within Hamas itself."

Palestinian analysts disagree. They say that Hamas has become a status-quo power whose interests, ironically, coincide with Israel's. Both oppose a mending of the rift between Hamas and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank.

Ibrahem Ibrach, professor of political science at Al Azhar University, aid: "Hamas is now behaving like a country and not like a resistance movement." This is "why if Iran wants to destabilise the events in the region, they have to go to Islamic Jihad. Hamas won't gamble its hold on power to satisfy Iran."