Iran’s Gaza proxy and Israel trade fire, but the strip’s problems run much deeper

Islamic Jihad has claimed the latest rocket fire but experts say Israel's siege must end to stop the violence

TOPSHOT - Smoke billows from a targeted neighbourhood in Gaza City during an Israeli airstrike on the Hamas-run Palestinian enclave on May 5, 2019. Gaza militants fired fresh rocket barrages at Israel early today in a deadly escalation that has seen Israel respond with waves of strikes as a fragile truce again faltered and a further escalation was feared. / AFP / MOHAMMED ABED

This weekend's bloody flare-up in Gaza, the most serious in months, followed an all too familiarly painful script.

On Friday, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, blockaded by Israeli and controlled by Hamas, protested along the contested border and Israeli snipers killed two people.

The same day, militants of the Islamic Jihad group, an Iran-backed faction allied to Hamas, fired at Israeli soldiers and Israel retaliated, killing two.

On Saturday and Sunday, Hamas and Islamic Jihad sent more than 500 rockets into Israel, killing three Israelis.

Israel responded with more than 220 missile strikes on what it claimed were military sites in Gaza, killing eight more Palestinians, though Israel disputes two of the deaths.

Amid the escalation, conflicting stories emerged over the role of Islamic Jihad – the second largest militant group in Gaza, which has been part of internationally mediated ceasefire talks with Israel – and the state of play of politics in Gaza.

Islamic Jihad began in the 1980s in Gaza, founded by Palestinian students who split from Gaza’s Muslim Brotherhood who were  considered not to be extreme enough.

The US and EU, among others, have designated it a terrorist group. Islamic Jihad is based in Syria and has ties to Iran.

Israeli military spokesman Jonathan Cornicus on Sunday spoke of Islamic Jihad’s role in the weekend’s violence and Hamas's "difficulty in implementing its sovereignty and control over Gaza”.

The barrage of rockets, for which Israel blamed Islamic Jihad, "show the very limited influence that Hamas has over Palestinians” and “the increased liberty and audacity that Palestinian Islamic Jihad feels it can get away with regards to Hamas", Mr Cornicus said.

And a commentary piece on Sunday in Israel Today, an Israeli newspaper largely considered a mouthpiece for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, declared in its headline: "Islamic Jihad Looking for Trouble: Hamas not Sufficiently Restraining them".

The article said that in recent months, Islamic Jihad has been “less submissive” to Hamas, partly because of a leadership change in Damascus and Iranian pressure.

But Tareq Baconi, a Palestine-Israel analyst with the International Crisis Group, disputed this as "self-serving" for Israel to portray divisions within Gaza's factions "when in reality all factions are united in their demands".

"They are looking to pressure Israel into implementing their side of the agreement," Mr Baconi said.

"I think this escalation has exactly the same elements as the previous one [in March] to push for the sides to get back to the negotiating table."

Egyptian and international mediators have been seeking a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas. Islamic Jihad has also been part of these talks.

On Friday, Egyptian authorities summoned Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders to Egypt for ceasefire talks after the escalation began.

In the short-term, Gazan factions want Israel to loosen the blockade by allowing in more aid and increasing movement and employment opportunities, among other demands.

Over the past year, Hamas and other factions with its backing have been sending incendiary balloons and a smaller number of rockets into Israel to apply pressure as a negotiating tactic, analysts say.

The intensity of Friday protests have also become a way for Hamas's leadership to increase or lessen pressure on Israel.

Saleh Abdalati, who leads the Palestinian Centre for Policy Research and Strategic Studies in Gaza, said Israel was blaming Islamic Jihad for the escalation to discredit the talks and demands of Gaza's factions.

He said Mr Netanyahu, who was re-elected in April, did not want to find a solution.

The prime minister often makes hawkish statements on Gaza and on Sunday promised “massive strikes” in Gaza in response to the rockets.

So far he has avoided all-out war since 2014 but now Mr Netanyahu faces pressure from his right-wing base and opponents to take a harsher stand.

This has been compounded by looming indictments for the prime minister and his need to retain his coalition's support for his political survival.

On Sunday, Israel's defence forces sent infantry brigades to the border area.

Islamic Jihad, meanwhile, has pledged to continue its resistance, even if that means war.

At the weekend, its militants released videos threatening Israel and next week’s Eurovision song contest being held in Tel Aviv.

Under an Israeli blockade since 2007, Gaza's war-weary economy and infrastructure is in shambles.

Unemployment, humanitarian crises and frustration with Hamas's repressive rule is fuelling widespread discontent, with few available outlets.

Inside Gaza, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have competed since their inception, Mr Baconi said.

“There is always a kind of tension between Hamas and Islamic Jihad on tactical and ideological issues,” he said.

But while Islamic Jihad has gone rogue in the past, sending rockets or carrying out other attacks from Gaza without Hamas’s consent, the ruling group's reaction has been swift, Mr Baconi said.

This weekend, “there is very clear, practical co-ordination among the factions in the Gaza Strip", he said.

Either way, Celine Touboul, deputy director general of the Economic Co-operation Foundation in Tel Aviv, said the focus on Islamic Jihad was "a very tactical analysis that does not reflect the broader challenge".

The most immediate challenges are opening up Gaza so people can find a source of income, and reducing the tension and internal divisions between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

"Getting rid of Islamic Jihad won't solve the repeated waves of violence," Ms Touboul said.