After Israel killed a senior militant on March 9, it was the relatively fringe group Islamic Jihad that fired at least 180 rockets across Israel's border, allowing it to claim the mantle as the leader of the Palestinian military opposition – a title that once was an undisputed possession of Hamas.
While the rockets did little damage, thanks to Israel's Iron Dome antiballistic system, Islamic Jihad’s move has played well on the Palestinian street, which blames Israel for violating months of relative calm.
"I felt so happy when I saw hundreds of Israelis running to hide in safe shelters as our modest rockets hit their cities," says university student Ismail Radi. "But I wonder why Hamas is not helping ... they are stronger than Islamic Jihad and they have a resistance party that is supposed to confront Israel, they should react on the ground."
Indeed, the emergence of Islamic Jihad marks a role reversal in the Gaza Strip, which is run by Hamas.
“Islamic Jihad is taking the role that Hamas used to play five years ago,” says Mkaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Gaza’s Al Azhar University. “There is satisfaction among the Palestinian people that Islamic Jihad responded and retaliated against Israel. Hamas is under huge embarrassment in Gaza because it didn’t respond.”
It could also mark a new strategy by Iran, which may see its trusted Palestinian proxy as a means to accomplish two goals: diverting Israel's attention from its nuclear program and coaxing its longtime client Hamas back into the fold. Hamas, long a part of the "axis of resistance" led by Iran and Syria, recently decamped from Syria for pro-Western capitals.
“It would be a safe assumption that Iran would ideally like to see Israel involved in a long, protracted war that doesn’t focus on the Iranian nuclear program,” says Meir Javedanfar, a Tel Aviv-based Iran expert. “After the recent distancing of Hamas from Iran, Islamic Jihad making problems for Hamas could be possibly a way of showing that turning one’s back on Iran has a price.”
Worst fighting since 2009 Gaza war
Today's cease-fire, mediated by Egypt, sought to put an end to four days of fighting that left at least 26 Palestinians dead, most of them militants, and unleashed hundreds of rockets targeting southern Israeli cities.
"We have set our conditions before agreeing to a truce and the occupation has accepted them," said Khader Habib of Islamic Jihad. "Egypt has assured us that Israel will stop targeted assassinations and we will respect the cease-fire as long as Israel respects it."
Islamic Jihad said it was preparing a rally in Gaza City later Tuesday to celebrate a "victory.''
A Hamas official said the truce went into effect at 1 a.m. but Israeli jet fighters and drones were still flying overhead today, while Grad rockets were still being fired from Gaza.
Not since the 2009 Gaza war between Israel and Hamas has the fighting been so bad as it was in this most recent round. That conflict left Hamas badly beaten, the Gaza Strip in shambles with more than 1,000 Palestinians dead, and many residents frustrated with Hamas.
Ever since, Gaza’s militant Islamist rulers have become more cautious in joining the fray for fear of triggering another round of fighting.
It’s another sign of how Hamas has evolved over two decades. Back in the 1990s and into the second Palestinian intifada that began in 2000, it was Hamas’s military aggression that embarrassed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who had committed to peace talks with Israel.
'Life here is worse than in Somalia'
But Hamas's shift in policy has left it open to criticism by Islamic Jihad and to some Palestinians who support military retaliation against Israel.
"I hope that we all would be united in this fight against Israel so we can show this arrogant enemy that we can give him lessons to learn in the future," Islamic Jihad spokesman Daoud Shihab said at a press conference yesterday. "We are strong enough to keep fighting the Israelis, and the near future will prove this."
Though both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are considered terrorist groups by Israel and the US, Islamic Jihad is purely a military outfit. Because it is not a player in Palestinian politics, it doesn’t operate under the constraints of approval ratings and possible elections, as Hamas does.
“Islamic Jihad in this round was the star of the events,” says Yoni Figel, a counterterrorism expert at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, who added that the group is an uncontroversial target for Israeli leaders. “Everybody knows that Islamic Jihad are the bad guys – they don’t represent anyone in Palestinian civil society, will never be partners for peace.”
Hamas, on the other hand, has to worry about people like Bahjat Hamad, a father of nine whose house was damaged this weekend in an Israeli raid in Gaza City suburb of Jabaliya.
"Why should this happen to me? Why should I feel unsafe all the time?" asks Mr. Hamad, whose house was hit while he and his family were asleep. "This is the second time my house is bombed in three years. I don't want this to go on, I want to live like a king or a minister. Life here is worse than life in Somalia or Darfur."