As far as most of the world is concerned, this week’s outbreak of fighting along the border between Gaza and southern Israel is just another boring chapter in a never-ending story that is usually dismissed as a “cycle of violence.” But while the terrorist rocket attacks from Gaza, the “work accident” in which a malfunctioning rocket took the lives of a few terrorists, and the Israeli counter-attacks all seem depressingly familiar, there was something new and particularly dangerous about this week’s events. The latest incidents not only were the first major outbreak in Gaza since 2012. The decision to attack Israel on this scale as well as the manner in which the parties are backing away from the abyss of all-out war both indicate that a major change for the worse is going on Gaza.
What’s so different about these attacks? First, it looks like Iran may have played a role in precipitating the missile barrage on Israeli cities, towns, and villages. Second, if reports are to be believed, rather than conducting indirect negotiations with the Hamas terrorist movement that rules Gaza in order to end the confrontation, this time the deal was with the even more extreme Islamic Jihad that is directly allied with Iran. If so, Gaza has now gone from being the independent Palestinian state-in-all-but-name ruled by an Islamist tyranny that Israel still could hold accountable for violence to one that is one step closer to chaos or, even worse, falling under the thumb of an Iranian auxiliary.
While outside influences have always helped to exacerbate Palestinian terrorism in the past, the suspicion that Iran is playing a role in the rocket attacks is hard to avoid. Iran was Hamas’s leading supplier of arms and cash during the second intifada. But it broke with the group over the civil war in Syria when Hamas joined other Sunni groups in cutting off ties with the Assad regime in Damascus that is still closely aligned with Tehran. There has been some speculation that Hamas might reconcile with Iran now that it has become more isolated because Egypt’s new military government sees the Gaza enclave as an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood. Given the fact that Assad has, with Iranian help, won in Syria, the argument between Hamas and Tehran seems pointless. But since Hamas has been forced by circumstances to abstain from regular attacks on Israel, Iran may prefer dealing with the far smaller and more militant Islamic Jihad.
That may mean that Israel’s capture of the Iranian arms ship Klos-C last week filled with missiles intended for Islamic Jihad to use against the Jewish state may have been the factor that caused the outbreak. Perhaps Iran or Islamic Jihad decided to remind the Israelis that they are still there and can inflict some damage if they are so inclined.
But more than that, the really serious aspect of this incident is that Hamas seems unable to keep Islamic Jihad in check. In the past, Israel rightly held Hamas, as the rulers of the strip, responsible for all attacks emanating from Gaza. But if the only way for Israel to stop the fighting once it had given Islamic Jihad a necessary military response was to actually reach out to that group rather than Hamas via Egyptian emissaries, then we have entered a new era in Gaza that ought to scare everyone.
Like everything else that happens in the Middle East, Israel’s critics will claim the new prominence of Islamic Jihad is somehow the fault of the Jewish state. We will be told that if only the Israelis had dealt with Hamas and brought them into the peace process or been given concessions that would have empowered them to make compromises that could have helped end the conflict, then maybe Islamic Jihad wouldn’t have gained more support. In the same way, we were told that if the Israelis had bowed to the demands of the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority, Hamas wouldn’t have become powerful enough to seize the strip in a 2006 coup.
The problem, however, is not the fault of insufficient Israeli concessions but the reality of Palestinian politics. Hamas gained ground on Fatah because the latter was seen as too moderate and unwilling to shed as much Jewish blood as their Islamist rivals. Islamic Jihad is growing in influence because it is now seen as tougher and bloodier than Hamas. The support of Iran, which cares nothing for the Palestinians but has a vested interest in keeping up the level of violence against Israel and preventing any chance of peace, is the icing on the cake. In any case, both Hamas and Islamic Jihad reject an end to the conflict on any terms, meaning that any Israeli concessions to them would be as pointless as they are dangerous.
It is to be hoped that Israel’s response to the rocket attacks as well as its interdiction of the flow of Iranian arms to the Palestinians will make further fighting less likely or at least less costly. Israel has no good options in Gaza since re-occupying it would be politically impossible and inflicting serious damage on Hamas right now might only help make Iran and Islamic Jihad stronger.
But there should be no doubt about the fact that Iran’s growing influence—a development that is the inevitable byproduct of its apparent victory in Syria and its ability to force the United States to negotiate on Iranian terms on the nuclear issue—makes the Middle East a lot more dangerous. And if Iran has more to say about Palestinian politics via its Islamic Jihad ally, the already slim chances that Fatah can make peace with Israel just got a lot slimmer.