The uneasy peace that had descended on Gaza after the bloody Israeli onslaught of December 2008–January 2009, code-named Operation Cast Lead, ended on March 9 when Israel launched an air strike against Zuhair al-Qaissi, Head of the Popular Resistance Committees group.
The uneasy peace that had descended on Gaza after the bloody Israeli onslaught of December 2008–January 2009, code-named Operation Cast Lead, ended on March 9 when Israel launched an air strike against Zuhair al-Qaissi, Head of the Popular Resistance Committees group. It provoked the resistance groups to fire missiles against Israeli targets in retaliation.
Although the pattern of conflict was similar to previous encounters with Israel, there was a difference in terms of the main actors from the Palestinian side. This time Hamas did not lead the charge against Israel. Instead, al-Quds Brigade’s armed wing of Islamic Jihad took the lead, and to the surprise of the Zionists, effectively locked up around a million Israelis inside shelters, thanks to its short-range Grad missiles. Although there were no serious casualties on the Israeli side, it seems the leadership of Islamic Jihad was not unduly concerned about it as a senior leader of al-Quds Brigade, Abu Ibrahim told the AFP in an interview: “What we seek with our rockets is not to kill Israelis, but to maintain a balance of terror… The fact that a million Israelis were stuck inside shelters and suffered as our people do is more important for us than deaths.”
He further warned Israel that the capabilities of al-Quds Brigade are far more devastating and can be used if the conflict is escalated: “If the occupation targets any leader of any Palestinian group whatsoever or any citizen, the Brigades will respond with force and expand the reach of the response beyond Ashdod,” Abu Ibrahim warned.
By the time a truce was announced on March 15, the resistance groups had fired around 250 Grad rockets from Gaza, nearly 180 of them launched by al-Quds Brigade operatives. Some rockets landed 40km inside Israel, close to the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Israel’s US-supplied and financed Iron Dome missile defence system intercepted almost 60 of these missiles and prevented major Israeli casualties.
As is customary because of the vast difference in weapons in its arsenal, Israeli air strikes martyred 25 Palestinians that included 14 members of Islamic Jihad. Palestinian missiles killed only one Israeli and injured a few others. Disparity in weapons, however, did not deter Palestinians from standing up for their rights even if they suffered much greater casualties.
In the meantime, leaders of Hamas, the most powerful Palestinian group, were busy brokering a truce through the Egyptians. According to the Saudi newspaper, al-Sharq al-Awsat, Hamas deployed plain-clothes security officers along the Gaza Strip borders to prevent missile launches into Israel. But both Hamas and Islamic Jihad denied such allegations and played down tensions between the two resistance groups. A senior Hamas figure, Ayman Taha, refrained from answering questions put to him by al-Sharq al-Awsat on this issue and instead said that “Hamas and the Gaza government is seeking to achieve, through communications with the national factions, a comprehensive national agreement in the greater interests of Palestine.” Abu Ibrahim of al-Quds Brigade denied tensions with Hamas, saying: “The Brigades operate with full freedom.”
Yet a source from within the Palestinian resistance had informed al-Sharq al-Awsat that discussions between Hamas and the leadership of Islamic Jihad and other factions were “very heated”. Hamas objected to the escalation of conflict in response to Israeli air strikes against Islamic Jihad and PFLP operatives.
Although Hamas and Islamic Jihad played down the tension, the neutral position that Hamas took during the conflict itself was an indication of problems in the Palestinian resistance movement. Hamas had been generously supported by Iran in its struggle to free the occupied lands. Millions of dollars of economic and military aid had been made available to Hamas, a fact acknowledged by Hamas leadership on numerous occasions. Due to such aid and military training, Hamas was able to stand against an all-out Israeli assault in December 2008.
However, the recent uprising in Syria created problems in the Iran-Hamas resistance alliance when Hamas leadership gave in to pressure from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt. The group abandoned its offices in Damascus and decamped to Egypt and Qatar. Further, it publicly criticised the Syrian leadership for its handling of the uprising. This of course upset Tehran as it believes that the uprising is part of a US-Europe led plot to cripple the axis of resistance that consists of Iran, Syria and Hizbullah. Tehran was also upset about the recent change in Hamas’ approach to the conflict and its relation with the PLO. During Operation Cast Lead, Hamas grievously suffered for resisting the Israeli onslaught and has been reluctant to get involved in another conflict that might inflict more casualties on the movement.
Concerned about the current course of Hamas leadership, it seems Iran has decided to increase support for other Palestinian groups that might be able to continue the military struggle against Israel. Abu Ahmed, a spokesman for al-Quds Brigade, confirmed the increased Iranian support for Islamic Jihad. He told Reuters in a rare interview: “We are proud and honoured to say that the Islamic Republic of Iran gives us support and help… The Jerusalem Brigades really surprised Israel, forcing them to rethink their assessment of us. I don’t think they realized we had that weaponry. We have at least 8,000 fighters, who are fully equipped.”
Another member of al-Quds Brigades told the AFP that Iran has delivered precious weapons to Islamic Jihad which had previously been given only to Hizbullah: Fajr-3 and Fajr-5, which are more advanced than the Russian-made Grad missiles, are now in possession of al-Quds Brigade. These missiles, with a range of 60–110km and a sophisticated guidance system that can easily penetrate the Israeli Iron Dome missile defence system, can inflict serious damage on Israel.
As Islamic Jihad led the conflict against Israel and Hamas largely stayed out, public support that was on the side of Hamas during and after Operation Cast Lead has now started to shift toward Islamic Jihad. This was obvious during the funeral ceremony held for the martyrs of Islamic Jihad; around 100,000 Palestinians gathered to show solidarity with the movement.
Hamas might suffer a drop in popularity if it continues on its current path. As in the case of PLO, the support given by pro-US regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt will not be sufficient to maintain credible resistance against Zionist Israel. Leaders of the movement must keep in mind that if they are unable to continue on the path of determined resistance, there will always be others to take their place.