by Prof. Eyal Zisser
Everyone knows the next conflict is just a matter of time.
The destruction of an Islamic Jihad terror tunnel running under the Gaza Strip-Israel border two weeks ago breached the tense calm on the southern front.
Israel hoped that the operation, as well as thwarting a major terrorist attack, would help restore calm to the area. Islamic Jihad sustained a massive blow, losing several operatives when the tunnel collapsed, and learning – like the other terrorist groups in Gaza – that Israel has devised a way to neutralize the tunnel threat, largely considered Hamas' and Islamic Jihad's "doomsday weapon" in any future war in Gaza.
The IDF believes the current calm on the border is deceptive and that Islamic Jihad is biding its time and plans to retaliate in the form of rocket fire or a terrorist attack. Islamic Jihad officials have been ignoring Israel's warnings, and have been publicly declaring that vengeance is forthcoming.
The IDF's warnings sent a clear message to Hamas and Islamic Jihad: Israel is determined to defend its sovereignty and it will not tolerate any attempt to violate it. At the same time, Israel has also clearly signaled that it has no interest in a security escalation and that it wants to maintain the relative peace and quiet along the border.
The problem is that Islamic Jihad is not open to any sort of dialogue or understandings with Israel. This is a radical terrorist group that leans heavily on its military wing, the al-Quds Brigades, and unlike Hamas or Hezbollah, it has no political, economic or social institutions to speak of and is thus free of the need to protect them.
As Islamic Jihad is not backed by the local population, it does not have to consider their welfare or heed their reproaches. After all, should anything happen, the residents of Gaza will turn their anger and complaints to the enclave's rulers, namely Hamas.
Islamic Jihad's headquarters are safely nestled in Damascus, removed and detached from the situation on the ground. But this also means it struggles to impose its authority on its Gaza-based operatives. As a result, Islamic Jihad has – more than any other terrorist group in Gaza – become an Iranian proxy that follows Tehran's instructions and bows to its interests in a way even Hamas refuses to do.
This does not bode well, as one cannot expect a terrorist group of this nature to exercise any type of restraint, moderation or discretion.
This leaves the ball squarely in Hamas' court. Despite the slowly progressing rapprochement between the rival Palestinian factions, Hamas remains Gaza's ruler. As such, it may hope Islamic Jihad decides not to follow through on its threats to attack Israel, or it may hope that Israel shows restraint and contains any attack thus preventing a security escalation.
One can only hope that Israel's unequivocal warnings will make Hamas understand that it must rein in Islamic Jihad, as it has done in the past, before its actions spell a catastrophe for Gaza. But even if Islamic Jihad does not attack Israel in the near future, everyone knows the next conflict is just a matter of time.
Prof. Eyal Zisser
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