Disorder the order of the day in Gaza
By Victor Kotsev
The weekend flare-up in the area of the Gaza Strip, which claimed the lives of
at least 14, appears to be largely over or destined to end within days. Though
two consecutive Egypt-brokered ceasefires between the Islamic Jihad movement
and Israel disintegrated, efforts to stop the hostilities stand a good chance
While seemingly low in significance, the weekend's violence offers a glimpse
into the incredibly complex and fluid situation on the southern Israeli border.
It also sheds light on some consequences of the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap deal
two weeks ago. In the relatively unlikely event that it escalates out of
proportion, moreover, it will become entangled with and offer a perspective
into powerful regional dynamics such as the standoff between the
West and Iran and the bid for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.
Hamas is apparently facing an internal challenge, most likely a design of a
discontented Iran and Syria. The Israeli government is trying to reinforce its
deterrence vis-a-vis the Gaza militants, but perhaps also to undermine (for
different reasons and in different ways) both Hamas and the Palestinian
As a whole, Gaza and southern Israel have been destabilized by chaos in the
Sinai Peninsula following the Arab Spring, partly as an effect of internal
Egyptian instability and partly due to a massive inflow of arms from Libya.
According to the Israeli version, it all started late last Wednesday, when a
rocket from Gaza exploded in an area near the southern Israeli city of Ashdod;
Israel retaliated symbolically (no injuries reported), but it also condemned
the incident unusually harshly at the United Nations, attacking Palestinian
President Mahmud Abbas for his failure to condemn it, and underscoring his lack
of authority in the Gaza Strip (the subsequent escalation reinforced the latter
"The rockets that continue to fly out of the area illustrate a basic truth: the
Palestinian Authority has absolutely zero authority in the Gaza Strip," reads a
letter by the Israeli ambassador at the UN, Ron Prosor, quoted by the Israeli
daily Ha'aretz. " While Abbas continues his unilateral march for state
recognition at the United Nations, the Palestinians are far from meeting the
basic criteria for statehood, particularly the test of effective control ...
So-called Palestinian unity has been - and remains - a virtual reality." 
On Saturday, two days after the letter was sent, the Israeli Air Force bombed
an Islamic Jihad cell, killing five militants, including a relatively senior
commander. Israel blamed the cell for Wednesday's fire, and claimed that it was
preparing to fire more missiles.
In response, Islamic Jihad unleashed a deadly barrage of missiles, killing an
Israeli civilian in the city of Ashkelon and wounding a number of others.
Meanwhile, Israeli strikes killed at least eight additional militants, and
wounded over a dozen. By Saturday evening, however, the situation had begun to
calm down, and even though hostilities continued through Sunday night, Egypt
stepped in and leaned hard on everybody to negotiate a ceasefire.
According to the Israeli press, the first such ceasefire was meant to come into
effect at 6am local time on Sunday, and after it disintegrated another was
arranged for 10pm on Sunday evening. Early Monday morning, reports came of further missiles and of two Palestinians casualties of an overnight airstrike; still is
likely that another ceasefire will be announced shortly. The last similar
flare-up in August died out in days.
Importantly, the dominant movement in Gaza, Hamas, seems to have little interest in
the violence. It just concluded the first part of the prisoner swap deal with
Israel, which boosted its popularity among the Palestinian public, and now it
is waiting for another 550 prisoners of Israel's choosing to be released in
phase two. It is hard to imagine it would risk jeopardizing that agreed-upon
exchange - or its own infrastructure in Gaza - by picking a fight with Israel.
Islamic Jihad is in a different situation. With the help of Syria and Iran - and weapons that reached Gaza from Libya following the chaos in the North African country - Islamic Jihad has upgraded its arsenal and organizational capabilities substantially in the last months and years, rising up to become the second most powerful militant organization in Gaza. In the words of Arab-Israeli
journalist Khaled Abu Toameh,
[Islamic Jihad] is beginning to emerge as
a major challenge to the Hamas regime, especially given the fact that dozens of
disgruntled Hamas members are reported to have defected to Islamic Jihad.
Former Fatah security officers, some of whom were trained by the US and EU
[European Union], are also believed to have joined Islamic Jihad in the past
few years ... Islamic Jihad is acting on instructions from Tehran and Damascus,
whose leaders are also reported to be at loggerheads with Hamas ... According
to informed Palestinian sources, relations between Hamas and the Iranians and
Syrians have deteriorated because of the movement's refusal to publicly support
the embattled regime of President Bashar [al-]Assad. 
Israeli analysts Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff add the following details about
the relationship between Hamas and Islamic Jihad:
Hamas officials were
not surprised by Islamic Jihad's firing of the Grad after weeks of relative
quiet. Had the lull in the fighting gone on much longer Jihad risked fading
from the public eye in Gaza. The organization, and especially its Iranian
handlers, have no such intentions. Jihad is now squarely back in the forefront
of the rejectionist (muqawama ) camp, to which Hamas has mainly been
playing only lip service of late. In order not to be seen as having turned its
back completely on the ideology, for the sake of convenience, Hamas must let
Islamic Jihad respond to the killing of its members with rockets, but only for
a limited period. 
It is important to note that Iran and Syria
were likely on the losing side of the Shalit swap. According to a recent
analysis by the American think-tank Stratfor, "The crisis over Iran that we
expected by the end of the year is here," and Saudi Arabia is playing its hand
Stratfor suggests that the Saudis sought to douse out the potential for violence
between Israel and Hamas, in order to keep turning the screws on Assad:
this context, the last thing that the Saudis want to see is conflict with
Israel. A war in Gaza would have given the Assad regime an opportunity to
engage with Israel, at least through Hezbollah, and portray opponents to the
regime as undermining the struggle against the Israelis. This would have
allowed al Assad to solicit Iranian help against Israel and, not incidentally,
to help sustain his regime. 
conflict between Islamic Jihad and Israel escalates, it is reasonable to look
for a substantial foreign interference - by either Syria or Iran. Conversely, and perhaps in parallel, Israel may be trying hard to establish a deterrence in Gaza, in anticipation of a regional flare-up.
As a final note, the much acclaimed Israeli anti-missile
system Iron Dome seems to have failed the test this weekend. The Israeli army
blamed poor weather conditions and "a technical glitch".
Islamic Jihad has boasted of new missile technologies, including multi-barrel
rocket launchers. There have been signs - also during previous confrontations -
that the militant groups in Gaza are studying the Israeli defense system and
adapting to it.