Another Gaza Conflict, but With a Difference: Hamas Sat It Out.
The brief weekend conflict over Gaza had a grimly familiar outcome: dozens of Palestinians killed, including militant leaders as well as children, and scores of homes damaged or destroyed, most by Israeli airstrikes but some from Palestinian misfires.
But one thing was different from the usual fighting: Hamas, the de facto civilian government in Gaza, remained on the sidelines. A smaller Islamist group, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, took the lead in firing rockets — more than 1,000 of them — and bore the brunt of Israeli airstrikes, which began on Friday to pre-empt what Israel said was an imminent Islamic Jihad attack.
Though not unprecedented, Hamas’s decision confirmed the complex and shifting role that the movement has assumed since seizing control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. It also showcased the frictions among Palestinian Islamist militants about how best to fight Israel, and highlighted both the influence of Iran — which backs both Hamas and Islamic Jihad — and the limits of that support.
Hamas is still a military force that opposes Israel’s existence, and is considered a terrorist group by Israel and the United States. But unlike Islamic Jihad, it is also a ruling administration and a social movement. Though authoritarian, Hamas is sensitive to public opinion in the enclave and must also deal, if only indirectly, with Israel to assuage the most restrictive aspects of a 15-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade that was enforced after the group took power and has decimated living conditions in Gaza.
By holding fire over the weekend, Hamas showed sensitivity to Palestinian fatigue at the prospect of yet another confrontation with Israel, at least the sixth during Hamas’s tenure. It also suggested that Hamas was wary of losing several small but significant economic measures that Israel has offered Gaza since the last major confrontation in May 2021, including 14,000 Israeli work permits that boosted the strip’s economy.
In a briefing for reporters on Monday, a senior Israeli official, speaking anonymously in order to discuss the issue more freely, said that the Israeli policy of offering more work permits over the past year had played a significant role in keeping Hamas away from this round of fighting. The official said this would encourage Israel to step up the approach in the future.
While no one expects the fundamental dynamics in Gaza to change, let alone the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some analysts, diplomats and officials hope that the perceived success of this trade-off will encourage Israel to ease more restrictions in the future, further reducing the likelihood of violence.
“Hamas doesn’t want war at this moment,” said Hugh Lovatt, an expert on Palestinian politics at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a research group. “There is a more pragmatic relationship between Hamas and Israel that has developed. To a certain extent, it might be mutual.”
Publicly, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have expressed solidarity with each other during and after the weekend conflict, and promised to join forces again in the future, much as they did during earlier rounds of fighting in 2008, 2014 and 2021.
Fundamentally, both groups have a similar goal and ideology. They have roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, the global Islamist movement, and seek an end to Israel and its replacement by an Islamic Palestinian state.
Muhammad al-Hindi, an Islamic Jihad official, told a Turkish broadcaster on Sunday that there was no rift between the two groups. “Our relationship with Hamas has gotten stronger and more solid,” Mr. al-Hindi said. “We entered battles together and we will enter battles side by side, together.”
In a statement posted on its website on Saturday, Hamas said it remained “united” with Islamic Jihad, adding that “the fighters of all factions are confronting this aggression as one.”
But the two groups’ divergent behavior during the conflict reflects their differing current priorities as well as historical back stories.
Founded more than four decades ago, Islamic Jihad is older, smaller, and predominantly concerned with violent opposition to Israel. It has little interest even in participating in Palestinian political structures.
Hamas, formed in 1987, is comparatively more pragmatic — a social and political movement as well as a militant one.
It opposed efforts led by the Palestine Liberation Organization, the internationally recognized representative of the Palestinians, to seek a peace deal with Israel in the 1990s, mounting a lethal terrorism campaign to derail that process.
But Hamas nevertheless participates in Palestinian elections, winning the last legislative election, in 2006. It worked within unity governments in the Palestinian Authority, even after wresting Gaza from the authority’s control. And in recent years, it indicated a willingness to negotiate a long-term truce with Israel, while stopping short of recognizing its legitimacy.
“Ideologically they are not really much different — they both believe Israel has no right to exist in Palestine,” said Azzam Tamimi, an expert on political Islam and an academic affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. “But Hamas sees itself as a leader of society, not just a resistance movement.”
Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad receive financial and logistical support from Iran. But their different approaches in recent days highlight how Islamic Jihad — whose leader, Ziad al-Nakhala, was visiting Tehran during the conflict — is more susceptible to Iranian influence than Hamas.
During the Syrian civil war, Islamic Jihad never broke with Iran’s close ally, Syria, despite the Syrian government’s war against rebels who were, like Islamic Jihad and Hamas, Sunni Islamists. Hamas, however, severed ties with Damascus a decade ago, in solidarity with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and only recently restored them.
“Islamic Jihad decided from the beginning that the Iranian revolution was a model, a beacon of some sort,” said Mr. Tamimi. Hamas, he added, “has always insisted that the relationship with Iran should be on the basis of cooperation not tied to any strings.”
Islamic Jihad’s battle with Israel could bolster its popularity among some Palestinians, but past polling suggests it could have the opposite effect in Gaza itself — particularly after some of the group’s rockets appeared to misfire and fell on civilian areas in the strip, video seemed to show. After a similar round of fighting in 2019, in which Hamas also stayed outside the fray, nearly half of Gazans felt Hamas was right to do so, and only a third disagreed.
Some Israelis hope that Hamas, trying to maintain favor in Gaza, will continue to stay out of future conflicts if given more economic incentives to do so.
“I want to speak directly to the residents of the Gaza Strip and tell them: There is another way,” the Israeli prime minister, Yair Lapid, said in a speech Monday evening. “We know how to protect ourselves from anyone who threatens us, but we also know how to provide employment, a livelihood and a life of dignity to those who wish to live by our side in peace.”
Yonatan Touval, an analyst at Mitvim, an Israeli research group, said the situation even presented “an opportunity for advancing far-reaching arrangements between the two sides — first and foremost those involving the rebuilding of Gaza.”
But few expect small economic gestures to fundamentally change Hamas’s broader outlook, particularly while the blockade remains in place. Israel’s granting of 14,000 work permits has boosted the incomes of thousands of families, but doesn’t alter the lives of the majority. In the crowded enclave of 2 million, nearly half of working age adults are unemployed and only one in 10 Gazans has access to clean water.
“Absent a more sustainable long term political vision for Gaza,” said Mr. Lovatt, the analyst, “the cease-fire arrangement with Israel will ultimately at some point hit the limits of what it can provide Gaza and Hamas.”
Isabel Kershner and Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting.