Israel launched a wide-scale offensive against the Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip on Friday afternoon. Its stated target was senior Islamic Jihad commander Tayseer Al-Jaabari in his apartment in a high-rise residential building in Al-Remal area of Gaza City. He was killed along with several civilians, including five-year-old Alaa Qaddoum and her father, who lived in the apartment next to Al-Jaabari’s. The Israeli occupation authorities claimed that they had carried out a pre-emptive strike to thwart attacks on Israel planned by Al-Jaabari.
The Israeli aggression prompted a response from Islamic Jihad, which fired rockets towards Israeli settlements and cities near the Gaza Strip. Smaller Palestinian factions also fired rockets towards the occupation state, but the main and largest Palestinian resistance movement, Hamas, did not claim to have fired anything, despite the fact that the Israeli bombardment was intense and deadly.
Why did Hamas take this position and where it was during the latest Israeli offensive? When Israeli officials first claimed that Islamic Jihad was planning attacks, they said that they would blame Hamas, which runs the de facto government in the Gaza Strip, for rockets fired from the coastal enclave. The Israelis then changed their position and said that they had nothing to do with Hamas.
This surprising change suggests that the Israeli bombing campaign had less to do with security and more to do with the upcoming General Election. Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid claimed that Islamic Jihad planned to carry out attacks in retaliation for last week’s detention of its senior figure in Jenin, Bassam Al-Saadi. Ministers and officials echoed his claim, but renowned Israeli journalist Gideon Levy told Al Jazeera that he suspected that it was all to do with the election.
“Any prime minister needs to prove himself, especially if he comes from the centre-left in Israel,” he explained. “And we have a new prime minister, and he wants to show that he’s macho like all the former prime ministers. All those are very poor excuses to go for another round in Gaza.”
According to Israeli journalist Meron Rapoport, “One possibility is that Lapid wants to establish his position as a ‘strong’ prime minister, less than three months before the General Election, while the [opposition] Benjamin Netanyahu bloc is gaining strength in the polls.”
One Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, Sami Abu Shehadeh, told Middle East Eye: “Israel’s latest aggression in Gaza shows the will of Lapid and Gantz and their coalition to do anything to stay in power, including the killing of a five-year-old girl. This new war crime is part of an immoral electoral campaign to show that they can be as criminal as Benjamin Netanyahu.”
This was one of the reasons why Hamas did not respond to this round of Israeli violence. It recognised the election factor and believed that its involvement would extend the offensive. The movement opted to deny any electoral leverage to Lapid at the expense of Palestinian blood.
Moreover, Hamas knew that Israel was well prepared for the offensive, having covered all avenues through which the Palestinian resistance could have made any gains. It mobilised 25,000 reservists, entrenched tanks and artillery so that they would not be targeted easily by the Palestinian resistance groups, and put the Israeli settler community near the nominal border with Gaza in secure locations. After weighing up the situation from a military perspective, Hamas decided that it would not gain anything from being involved.
The Israelis then spun a hypothesis for this offensive and linked it to the “planned attacks” in response to Al-Saadi’s detention last week. The Islamic Jihad leadership in exile wanted to respond from Gaza, but Hamas and the other Palestinian factions, including Islamic Jihad in Gaza, disagreed. They wanted the response to be from the West Bank, where Al-Saadi lives and was detained, so that it would trigger a wider confrontation with the occupation authorities in order to stop their daily violations of Palestinian rights, homes and farms. Such a response could also deter state-backed illegal Israeli settler attacks on the Palestinians and their property.
However, when the occupation state declared its offensive on Gaza and called it “Breaking Dawn” Hamas did not stay silent. It exploited the Israeli plan to “divide and rule” and ran the response from behind the scenes.
In order not to damage his reputation, Lapid did not want to see body bags coming back into Israel, which would hurt his electoral campaign. That’s why he did his best to make the confrontation with Islamic Jihad alone, knowing its limited capability to inflict damage on the Israeli army and people. He forgot, though, that most Palestinians, despite their political and religious differences, are actually united.According to Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel succeeded in imposing a “divide and rule” policy as it kept Hamas “neutral” during the offensive, but Amos Harel of Haaretz said that, “Hamas will decide the duration and intensity of the conflict… If the operation does not end soon, things could get out of hand and Lapid could become another Olmert.” This was a reference to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who was in office during the 2008/9 war on Gaza.
The military correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth, Yoav Zeitoun, said that Israel faced a dilemma when it decided to neutralise Hamas, because the state was involved in a battle in Gaza without knowing the hands which hit back. “The military tactics in Gaza proved that there was a military power moving in the dark,” he added.
Israel committed a big mistake by excluding Hamas from the battle, said military analyst Gal Burger. “Hamas invested in this mistake and ran the battle from behind closed doors,” he explained. “All of them [the factions] hit back in the name of Islamic Jihad. Yair Lapid is the reason for this.”
During the offensive, Hamas said clearly that it supported Islamic Jihad in its response to the Israeli aggression. Islamic Jihad itself said that it was the Joint Operations Room formed by the military wings of all of the Palestinian factions which ran the battle.
I think that the large barrages of long-range rockets fired towards Israel were launched by the military wing of Hamas, Al-Qassam Brigades. Even Israeli military analysts said that these barrages were not from Islamic Jihad, and they believe that Lapid committed a mistake when the prime minister sought to “neutralise” Hamas.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.