Tacit cooperation between the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Gaza’s Islamist administrator Hamas reached unprecedented levels last week, as both parties, embattled domestically, sought to bolster their reputations as guarantors of stability.

A flare-up of hostilities, sparked by Israel’s assassination of Islamic Jihad leader Baha Abu al-Ata last Tuesday, was not dissimilar from previous rounds of fighting, as hundreds of rockets were shot into Israel and the Israeli air force bombed the Gaza Strip.

However, there was a major consequential difference: the Israeli military took particular care to avoid targeting the ruling party Hamas, which in turn remained on the sidelines. 

“We attacked only Islamic Jihad,” said Israeli military spokesman Brigadier General Hidai Zilberman. “We have other Islamic Jihad targets we can attack if necessary,” he added. 

When a family of eight was killed in an Israeli air raid on Saturday, an Arabic-language spokesman said an Islamic Jihad commander had been the target.

The Israeli government has mostly been silent in regards to its efforts to build bridges with Hamas, declining to either confirm nor deny.

However, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said in a radio interview that Abu al-Ata had been assassinated “because he was a hindrance to the arrangement negotiations with Hamas.”

“Hamas continues to be a strategic enemy. However, we see a genuine Hamas interest in de-escalation,” a source in the Israeli Defense Ministry told Asia Times on condition of anonymity.

“We believe that this can form the basis for a less violent pattern of interaction in the future,” the source added. 

A deeper understanding with Hamas fits into Netanyahu’s longstanding strategy of dividing Palestinian groups in order to make it easier to fight them, and to avert being forced into serious negotiations.

Cooperation with Hamas – building off of established avenues of communication via Egypt – also holds the key to reducing missile attacks against key border constituencies of the ruling Likud. 

Past rocket attacks have undermined the claims of the Likud as the party of security and have had the effect of eroding the party’s electoral support in its own strongholds.

Wider cooperation with Hamas also fits into the worldview of most of the leadership of the Israeli security forces, who have long advocated for greater civil aid to Gaza in order to facilitate long-term stability.

Rule vs resistance

The security understanding between Israel and Hamas has advanced even as relations between Hamas and its local rival Islamic Jihad deteriorate to unprecedented depths.

While the two movements are officially allies, they have always had tensions.

Islamic Jihad receives most of its funding from Tehran, and the rocket capabilities of the group are believed to be maintained through the efforts of Iranian engineers deployed to the Gaza Strip.

Hamas is also supported by Iran, but has attempted to maintain a certain amount of independence from the Shiite power.

Moreover, Hamas controls the ruling institutions in the Strip and therefore bears responsibility for governance and the quality of life of the citizens. Islamic Jihad’s influence is mostly derived from its reputation of relentless resistance to Israel.

The most recent conflict brought these tensions to the fore.

When Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar arrived at the funeral of Abu al-Ata, his car was pelted with rocks and rotten fruit and he was forced to leave. Unconfirmed rumors even circulated that the leadership of Hamas had cooperated in the assassination.

In a show of reconciliation the next day, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was welcomed into the mourning tent and there was a photo-op for him with Islamic Jihad’s Gaza leader Khaled al-Batsh and the father of the deceased. Batsh insisted that “we promise that we will remain united in our war against Israel and those who assist her.”

Hamas operatives fired two rockets into Israel on Saturday in an apparent show of solidarity, although the Israeli military does not believe the move was authorized by Hamas leadership.

In order to remain in power, Hamas needs Israel to remove the crippling restrictions on imports placed on the Strip and to support the restoration of basic services. At present, a staggering 97% of the water in Gaza is undrinkable and its sole power plant is only able to provide residents with a few hours of electricity per day.

Hamas also wishes to maintain stability in order to receive greater amounts of support from the gas-rich Gulf state of Qatar, which has largely replaced Iran as the major financier of the organization.

These considerations are particularly important as preparations for Palestinian general elections continue, slated to take place in February. Hamas is now considered the favorite to win and does not wish to undermine stability before Palestinians go to the polls.

Fatah II?

In the coming period, the assassination of Abu al-Ata may actually contribute to détente between Israel and Hamas.

The slain Islamic Jihad commander was a firm opponent of rapprochement with Israel and often fired missiles in order to foil attempts at reaching a modus vivendi in Gaza. 

Ata was particularly effective in creating a wide network of rockets, as evidenced by the ability of Islamic Jihad to launch more than 400 rockets into Israel in the latest round of fighting, including the heaviest launched to date, without the assistance of the larger and better-equipped Hamas.

The leadership in Gaza is nevertheless concerned it will be painted as collaborating with Israel, and thus agreements must be secret and limited.

Hamas is well aware that Fatah became deeply unpopular in Palestine due partially to the perception that they cooperated too closely with Israel. In turn, most Israelis see Hamas as a terrorist organization, and so no open agreements with them will be tolerated by the electorate or sought out by the government.

Nonetheless, as long as a détente suits the interests of the two parties, it will increasingly be advanced as the unofficial policy of both sides. Long term cooperation may also lead one day far in the future to recognition and open negotiations.

Israel accepted the PLO as a negotiation partner after decades of opposition. If both Hamas and Israel remain regional facts of life for long enough, they will be forced to reach a similar status quo.