Operation Shield and Arrow, which lasted five days and decimated Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s leadership and rocket-launching capabilities, was an unqualified success for the IDF and for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Not only did Israel set PIJ back on its heels in a major way, it managed to do so while suffering only one Israeli fatality and while keeping Hamas on the sidelines. This is the third time in the past four years that Israel has conducted a military operation in Gaza targeting PIJ while Hamas sat on its hands, making it difficult to view this as anomalous rather than evidence of a new standard dynamic at work. What appears to be the new normal for Israeli operations in Gaza has obvious benefits for both Israel and Hamas, and suggests a possibly different model for how Israel deals with Hamas politically in the future.

There are obvious reasons why Israel would like to keep splitting Hamas from PIJ. Between the two groups, PIJ is the more radical, the one without any real ambitions above and beyond killing Israelis and the one controlled and funded entirely by Iran. There is no downside from Israel’s perspective to continuously targeting PIJ capabilities, as they operate as an Iranian proxy right on Israel’s border, and are neither responsive to incentives that could moderate their behavior nor serve as a moderating influence in any way inside of Gaza.

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi briefing the media during Operation Shield and Arrow, May 11, 2023 by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (License linked to image)

Hamas, in contrast, while also an extremist group that is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, does perform the function of keeping Gaza from collapsing entirely as the de facto political sovereign in the territory. The Israeli government’s policy of easing restrictions on Gaza’s economy and on Palestinian laborers exiting and entering Gaza—instituted by the Bennett-Lapid government and maintained by the current Netanyahu government—has also yielded benefits by forcing Hamas to think twice about the costs of initiating or escalating hostilities with Israel. The unspoken but widely known secret is that no Israeli government wants to assume the risks of toppling Hamas in light of the chaos that would ensue in Gaza and what that would mean for the Palestinians living there. Thus, the desired scenario is keeping Hamas in place while limiting its violence targeting Israelis and Israeli territory. When rockets coming from Gaza are fired exclusively by PIJ—even if Hamas does nothing to stop them and makes a big deal out of the Hamas-PIJ joint operations room—and the IDF responds by hitting PIJ targets exclusively, if the fighting concludes after a few days without Hamas involvement it is effectively Israel’s perfect scenario.

Hamas also benefits from charting a different course of action from PIJ. If Israel’s ire is trained at PIJ and Hamas does not get drawn into the fighting, it escapes Israeli strikes unscathed, and it also means that to the extent that Palestinians’ anger in Gaza is directed internally, it will be aimed at PIJ rather than at Hamas. Despite the fact that PIJ has no designs on displacing Hamas and ruling over Gaza, the two organizations are still rivals, and anything that downgrades PIJ benefits Hamas, which wants to maintain a monopoly of force in Gaza. Hamas also wins diplomatically by looking more moderate by comparison in the eyes of Sunni states, paving the way for more open doors in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and sending the message that it is not entirely under Iran’s thumb.

A stencil of Khader Adnan, whose death in early May 2023 precipitated the recent conflict between Israel and PIJ by Philip Hopper, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 (License linked to image)

The longer this two-actor dynamic in Gaza continues, the greater the chances of a repeat of a similar dynamic that took place in the Palestinian arena from the late ’80s through the late ’90s. The emergence of Hamas at the start of the First Intifada worked to Fatah’s benefit, which until that point was Israel’s primary Palestinian foe and was seen by the Israeli government as nothing more than a terrorist organization. Having a new and more radical Palestinian actor enabled two simultaneous moves: it allowed Fatah to draw a contrast with Hamas and begin to moderate its behavior, and it changed the way that Israel viewed and dealt with Fatah in light of that contrast. This contributed to the process that culminated in political talks between Israel and the PLO, the eventual signing of the Oslo Accords and the creation of the Palestinian Authority, and today’s situation in which all of the distrust between Israel and PA does not negate the fact that the two coordinate in all manner of ways and that Israel views keeping the PA in power in the West Bank as a clear Israeli interest. 

There is little evidence that Hamas is going through an ideological moderation process akin to what happened in Fatah, and that it is going to adopt the PLO position of recognizing Israel within the 1967 lines any time soon. But its actions in Gaza—as evidenced by Operations Black Belt, Breaking Dawn, and Arrow and Shield—have begun to change, even while it continues to do whatever it can to destabilize the West Bank and launch operations against Israelis from there. If—and this is a big if—Hamas does at some point decide to shift course, it can take advantage of having a more radical and recalcitrant actor next to it. The same way that Israel began to judge Fatah’s behavior against Hamas’ rather than against some objective and static standard will likely play out in a similar fashion should Hamas emerge as a political contrast to PIJ.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak, President Bill Clinton, and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat at Camp David, July 2000

This can lead down one of two paths. In one scenario, it can lead to reconciliation between the two main actors in the Palestinian arena and unity on the Palestinian side, which would complicate Netanyahu’s longstanding desire to foster the Fatah-Hamas split that makes any comprehensive political process between Israel and the Palestinians more difficult. When thinking about any permanent-status agreement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Palestinian unification between the West Bank and Gaza is a prerequisite, which is one of the factors that today makes a two-state outcome appear out of reach.

In another scenario, however, a cemented Hamas-PIJ split can entrench Hamas in Gaza even further without any type of Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. If Israel continues to deal with Hamas as an implicit political partner rather than a group that it wants to topple, which is precisely how Israel has interacted with Hamas for half a decade, the situation may evolve to look more like the West Bank does today, with even a measure of open cooperation between Israel and Hamas in an effort to limit PIJ’s presence and influence. The relationship between Israel and the PA today is premised on a joint interest in combating Hamas, PIJ, and other groups in the West Bank, and if Israel and Hamas have a joint interest in combating PIJ and other groups in Gaza, it would only be another example of strange bedfellows at odds in one spot but cooperating in another spot.

I do not mean to suggest that a Hamas transformation is imminent, or even ever coming. But there is no question that Israel and Hamas both benefit today from the clear wedge that exists between Hamas and PIJ, and if one extrapolates how this might carry out going forward, there are some lessons to be gleaned from not-too-distant history.