A public dispute erupted this month between Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas, two Iran-backed terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip, following Israel’s November 12 assassination of senior PIJ leader Baha Abu al-Ata. This flare-up provides the United States and Israel with an opportunity to weaken these two Iranian proxies by imposing additional economic and political pressure upon them.
Following the assassination, PIJ launched a two-day rocket barrage at Israel. Fearing Israeli reprisals and unwilling to jeopardize political and financial benefits accrued over its six-month truce with Israel, Hamas initially declined to join the fray. This infuriated PIJ, which responded by expelling Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas official, from a November 15 memorial event commemorating al-Ata. PIJ supporters also reportedly threw stones at Zahar and his bodyguards while chanting “Death to Hamas.”
It took a conciliatory phone call between senior leaders and a meeting between the groups’ military wings to repair the damage. The groups then released statements affirming their desire to reconcile their differences and strengthen cooperation. Hamas eventually launched several rockets at Beersheba, a city in southern Israel, in solidarity with PIJ.
While Hamas and PIJ may have defused tensions temporarily, the interests of the two groups differ greatly. Hamas governs Gaza, while PIJ is largely unconstrained by obligations to the Palestinian populace.
Israeli Military Intelligence indicated that Hamas, though still committed to Israel’s destruction, is interested in a prolonged ceasefire. Hamas is in dire financial straits due to its mishandling of debts and general unwillingness to divert resources from its military wing. A long-term truce brings the promise of an eased blockade and general financial relief.
By contrast, al-Ata often intensified conflicts and sabotaged negotiations by launching rockets at Israel. Both Hamas and Israel concluded he was a disruptive and uncontrollable factor. Hamas likely welcomed the elimination of al-Ata, a major headache for them in Gaza.
If Israel was hoping to drive a wedge between PIJ and Hamas, al-Ata’s assassination constitutes a notable success. By using a precision-guided missile to limit civilian casualties, Israel was able to prevent al-Ata’s assassination from escalating into a broader conflict. At the same time, while the IDF has previously held Hamas responsible for rocket fire emanating from the Strip, Israel avoided striking Hamas targets and initially refrained from mentioning the group’s name in press briefings. This further aggravated tensions between Gaza’s two main terrorist groups.
Though Hamas and PIJ receive substantial support from Tehran, their relationship with Iran differs. PIJ is a full-fledged Iranian proxy and receives direct orders from Iranian leadership. Hamas, for its part, enjoys Iranian funding but often acts independently of Iranian preferences, as evidenced by Hamas’ refusal to support the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war.
Both PIJ and Hamas, in conjunction with Hezbollah and other Iran-backed Shiite militias in Syria, support Iran’s broader strategy of encircling Israel through proxies. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Hossein Salami alluded to this strategy when he boasted that the recent PIJ attacks on Israel would lead to the “fall of the Zionist regime.”
With this in mind, the United States and Israel should craft a policy of debilitating PIJ economically and politically, including by sanctioning PIJ commanders. One potential target is Akram al-Ajouri, a senior PIJ leader and a key emissary to Tehran. In doing so, Washington can send a message that it stands firmly behind Israel’s efforts to stamp out Iran-backed terrorism.
David May is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Jacob Zack is an intern. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP) and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). To receive more of their policy briefs, op-eds, and research, subscribe HERE. For more from CEFP and CMPP, subscribe HERE. Follow David on Twitter @DavidSamuelMay. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.