Since 2007, when Hamas took over Gaza, Israel has seen the organization as the effective ruler of the strip. Immediately after that happened, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared the Gaza Strip a “hostile entity” where activities are carried out against Israel’s population, and declared the Hamas organization responsible for everything taking place there.
The IDF spokesperson’s statement about the mortar fire on January 3 was unusual. This time, it failed to mention that Israel sees Hamas as responsible for the mortar barrage. One of the possible reasons is that Hamas is having trouble controlling the situation in the strip due to growing Iranian involvement.
While Hamas appears to be making an effort to ease the tensions, Islamic Jihad keeps firing mortar shells into Israel. The mortars fired in recent days were made in Iran, and this symbolically points to a growing Iranian presence through Islamic Jihad.
On May 2016, London-based Arabic-language newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported that Iran was supporting Islamic Jihad with an annual sum of $70 million. It further reported that Khaled Mansour, who is considered loyal to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, was appointed commander of the Quds Brigades in the Gaza Strip.
While Iran also supports the Hamas organization (according to a statement issued by Hamas in August, Iran has become the organization’s biggest arms and funds supplier after years of severed ties), there are moderate elements—like Egypt—that are also influencing the organization as well. Now, following the “reconciliation agreement” with Fatah, the Palestinian Authority will likely also try to convince the organization to avoid worsening the situation with Israel in a bid to achieve a diplomatic return.
Iran’s long arms seem to be encircling Israel: In Lebanon, it has Hezbollah, which can’t exist without it; in Syria, Iran is funding Shi'ite militias that are fighting the rebels together with the Syrian regime and whose members are expected to remain in the area after the Assad regime’s victory; in the Gaza Strip, Iran’s influence is still smaller than in Lebanon and Syria, but if it succeeds in expanding its influence there, the State of Israel will face a difficult challenge.
Today, Islamic Jihad is competing against Hamas and is the second largest organization in the strip. With Iran’s support, it could grow and become a much more significant organization in terms of the threat to Israel, and the result will be another front controlled aggressively by Iran.
So with all the psychological difficultly involved, Israel must make a perceptual change and try to see Hamas as an organization it could talk to and reach understandings with. Israel must enter peace negotiations with the PA—if the conditions allow—even if the Cabinet’s demand to disarm Hamas isn’t implemented, in a bid to prevent an expansion of Islamic Jihad, which could turn into a permanent situation that would lead to a further expansion of the existential Iranian threat to the State of Israel.
Liram Stenzler-Koblentz is a fellow researcher at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and an expert on military ethics, low intensity war, terrorism and guerilla warfare.