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Analysis: Palestinian Islamic Jihad is like a grenade in a Gaza gas station

A veiled Palestinian supporter of the Islamic Jihad attends a rally to mark the 25th anniversary of the movement in Gaza City, Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012. The Arabic writing on the woman's headband reads, "no God but Allah, Muhammad is the Prophet.
(AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Directly financed and backed by Iran, PIJ is the second largest armed terrorist faction in Gaza

As Egypt seeks to find a long-term arrangement that will stabilize the situation in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), much like a man wielding a grenade in a gas station, is threatening to blow everything up.

Tuesday's mortar shell assault on southern Israeli areas and communities is the clearest example yet of PIJ's ability to drag Gaza into a new, major escalation.

Hamas, Gaza’s ruling armed faction, has other interests at this time.

Although its ideology remains as fundamentalist as ever, Hamas is desperate to find an arrangement that will enable it to secure its regime, by finding outside funding for Gaza’s dire economic situation.

As a result, going to war is not something Hamas is seeking.

Instead, Hamas has been organizing weeks of border clashes and mass infiltration attempts, resulting in casualties. The border incidents were a last ditch campaign that followed the failure of Hamas's effort to reconcile with its rival, the Palestinian Authority, in order to end its growing isolation.

Mohammed Abed / AFP

Now, it seems, Egypt is taking an active role and exploring ways to reach a more stable status quo for Gaza. That could, in theory, also include an unwritten understanding between Hamas and Israel, which would strike a delicate balance.

On the one hand, such an understanding could enable more significant economic development plans to take hold in Gaza, and let more funds enter the Strip, thereby avoiding the risk of an economic collapse – a collapse that is not in anyone’s interest.

On the other hand, such an arrangement would have to take Israel’s vital security concerns into account, and put a stop to the war build-up activity in Gaza that threatens Israel’s security.

Until now, Israel has been forced to engage in this risky balancing act on its own, and no one else has been helping.

The Palestinian Authority is seeking to choke off Gaza’s economy. It is punishing Hamas over its refusal to comply with demands to disband the military wing. Egypt has kept its Rafah border crossing with Gaza almost entirely sealed shut.

That leaves Israel, which has through its land crossings with Gaza managed things on its own, ensuring that several hundred trucks enter Gaza each day, delivering all manner of goods, keeping fuel and gas transfers going, giving permits to a growing number of Gazan businesspeople to leave the Strip, and being on the lookout for an imminent economic collapse, which could spark a new military confrontation.

Said Khatib (AFP)

A more active role played by Cairo, as well as possibly the US, in neutralizing the Gazan economic - and security - time bomb, would be a welcome development, provided that any futture arrangement shields Israel’s security interests. Such a development could see Egypt open its Rafah Crossing to trade and people, helping to alleviate the pressure on Gaza’s civilians, who have been held hostage by Hamas’s activities for years.

But if there is one actor in the Gaza Strip that is threatening to bring this already unsteady house of cards tumbling down, it is PIJ.

Directly financed and backed by Iran, PIJ, the second largest armed terrorist faction in Gaza, has in recent months been engaged in a series of attempts to attack Israel.

The latest of these is the planting of an explosive device hidden in fence cutters, which were left on the Gaza – Israel border fence.

When Israel responds to such armed attacks, as it did recently by firing on a PIJ look-out cell, killing three armed operatives, the organization seeks to respond.

The dynamic this creates threatens to overturn the entire effort to stabilize Gaza.

Roberto Schmidt (AFP)

With some 10,000 armed operatives, and an arsenal of its own rockets and mortar shells, the organization can definitely spoil any intention to create a firmer truce between Israel and Hamas.

Behind closed doors, Hamas's leaders are probably well aware of the threat PIJ poses to the viability of their regime in Gaza. While Hamas seeks to reign PIJ in, it exercises only partial control over this organization.

Hamas cannot stop PIJ from arming itself in the weapons-saturated environment of Gaza, or from firing on Israel, if PIJ leaders are determined to do so.

As a result, PIJ’s actions will continue to threaten not only Israel’s security, but also the long-term future of Hamas’s rule in Gaza.

Yaakov Lappin is an associate researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a correspondent for Jane’s Defense Weekly and the Jewish News Service.

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