by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College and a reporter for War Is Boring. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.The Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) has fortressed itself in the Gaza Strip, expanding its authority over local rivals and autonomy from foreign allies. Regional powers such as Iran and Syria have failed to control Hamas while the second-strongest resistance movements in Gaza, namely Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), must challenge it or accept its power and defer to it. PIJ has proved potent and versatile, showing that it can challenge Israel on the battlefield and that, unlike the secularist and socialist Palestinian factions that followed the Arab–Israeli Wars, it can maintain its relevance in the ever-changing conflict. Nevertheless, until now, Hamas has managed to ensure its hegemony and supremacy in Gaza in particular and Palestine in general.
Hamas runs a police state in its territory. “The press is still heavily monitored and controlled, Fatah members are watched, and the sheer visibility of armed Hamas police and militia forces is intimidating,” wrote The New York Times. “After having confronted and disarmed significant Fatah-supporting hamullas, or clans, Hamas has a near monopoly on arms inside Gaza.” Unlike the Palestinian National Authority (PA), which must submit to Israel by controlling and limiting the paramilitaries operating in the West Bank, Hamas guides the resistance movements and terrorist organizations in Gaza toward jihad against the Jewish state. PIJ has worked with Hamas to attack Israeli territory. As PIJ has lost one of its few commanders in the West Bank, the paramilitary may come to depend more on Gaza and therefore Hamas to continue striking Israel. The Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), a coalition of a number of armed Palestinian groups and believed to be the third strongest faction active in the Gaza Strip, has allied themselves with Hamas after opposing the PA’s relationship with and submission to Israel. “The intifada will continue and will become the greatest strategic turning point in the history of the Palestinian struggle,” asserted a Hamas official. “Nothing will be able to stop this intifada. Not the occupying enemy and not its security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority.” Hamas has sensed its superiority over other Palestinian factions, recognizing its leadership in fighting Israel. Because paramilitaries such as PIJ and the PRC cooperate with it rather than compete with it — while the PA has abandoned resisting Israel altogether — Hamas understands that it has succeeded where other Palestinian factions have failed. Few can pose a challenge to its rulership in Gaza and over the remaining anti-Israeli terrorist organizations in Palestine.Hamas has struggled to lessen its dependence on foreign allies. The movement had allied itself with Iran and Syria in the Resistance and Deterrence Axis, which rejected Israeli and Western interventionism in the Middle East. However, the Arab Spring inspired revolutions that, in several countries, became civil wars between Sunnis and Iranian-backed Shias. Hamas, a Sunni movement in a Shia-majority alliance, withdrew from the Axis of Resistance because Iran supported a Shia-aligned government massacring Sunnis in Syria. The movement has refrained from siding with Iran in its many proxy wars with Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the Syrian government has ended its relationship with the Palestinian faction, citing its own lack of support from Hamas. According to some sources, Hamas has even helped the Syrian opposition. Though analysts might have expected these events to weaken the movement, Hamas’ refusal to work with Iran and Syria represents its autonomy from its foreign sponsors and their sectarian agendas, ambitions, and ideologies. Its leaders have searched for support from Sunni countries, such as the Emirates and Qatar. Free from the Axis of Resistance, Hamas can ensure that it focuses on Palestinian goals instead of foreign ones. The movement claims to represent Palestine, and, as far as its tactics and strategies have shown, this claim seems enough.
PIJ has avoided the difficulties that Hamas faces in governing Gaza by focusing on jihad against Israel. “Because Islamic Jihad has not participated in elections, it is difficult to determine its popularity in that respect,” wrote Al-Monitor. “The burden of governance has cost Hamas popularity on the ground as it struggles to steer Gaza through the hardships associated with the Israeli–Egyptian siege and a series of economic and political crises.” Two years ago, PIJ launched rockets to punish the Jewish state for killing some of its fighters. Hamas, meanwhile, refrained from fighting Israel because of the potential consequences for Gaza’s infrastructure, which it would need to rebuild. “The Palestinian Islamic Jihad wants to reestablish a sovereign, Islamic Palestinian state with the geographic borders of the pre-1948 mandate Palestine,” observed the Council on Foreign Relations. “The PIJ advocates the destruction of Israel through violent means; it approaches the Arab–Israeli conflict as an ideological war, not a territorial dispute. PIJ members see violence as the only way to remove Israel from the Middle East map and reject any two-state arrangement in which Israel and Palestine coexist.” Though hard-liners compose Hamas, analysts have viewed PIJ as more extreme, refusing to concede to Israel where Hamas or other Palestinian factions might. Whereas Hamas has become mainstream, PIJ prides itself on representing Israel’s fiercest Palestinian enemy, threatening to attack however, whenever, and wherever it can.PIJ’s capabilities stretch beyond the military and the political. It operates many social services for Palestinians, including schools, despite refraining from governance. “We teach the children the truth,” a PIJ teacher told Haaretz. “How the Jews persecuted the prophets and tortured them. We stress that the Jews killed and slaughtered Arabs and Palestinians every chance they got. Most important, the children understand that the conflict with the Jews is not over land, but rather over religion. As long as Jews remain here, between the [Jordan] river and the sea, they will be our enemy and we will continue to pursue and kill them. When they leave we won’t hurt them.” PIJ even sought to induct kindergartners into its anti-Israeli militancy, brainwashing a generation of Palestinians into its ideology. These social services would fail to compete with Hamas’ comprehensive, expansive goals in Gaza, yet they serve to strengthen the cult of personality around PIJ and its ideals. The movement has adopted tactics and strategies resembling Iran’s in general and Hezbollah’s in particular; Hezbollah has learned to balance helping its community and ruling it, leaving the worst difficulties of governance to the Lebanese government. PIJ has achieved a similar balance in Gaza. As the relationship between Hamas, PIJ, and the Resistance and Deterrence Axis grows more complex, PIJ may have to use its unique potency and versatility to adapt. The movement can position itself to outcompete Hamas as the premier faction in Gaza, or it can decline as Hamas has.