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A Palestinian militant named Muhammad Rabah A’si was killed today in a clash with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). A’si was killed when he was hiding in a cave in the West Bank. Reportedly, A’si had been the planner of an attack on an Israeli bus in the city of Tel Aviv on November 21, 2012.
Following his killing, Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, formally announced that A’si was one of their members. Yet, at the same time, Saraia Al-Quds, the military wing of the Islamic Jihad in Palestine (IJP) formally announced that A’si was one of its members.
It is not the first time that Palestinian militant organizations argued over the organizational affiliation of Palestinian militants who were killed. Confirmed information also indicates that Palestinian militants operate under the umbrella of different organizations simultaneously. The embracing of militants killed in action is significant to Palestinian organizations because it is a way to gain popularity in the Palestinian street and to attract potential recruits.
This specific incident takes place at a very sensitive time. Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, is under increasing pressure. Various reasons force Hamas to restrain other Palestinian organizations in the Gaza Strip – and mostly the powerful IJP – to prevent them from launching wide-scale attacks on Israeli cities. Hamas is constantly criticized by these organizations for its restraint policy. So far, Hamas was able to impose its will.
Hamas recently sustained a serious blow with the exposure of a huge tunnel dug from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory. The tunnel was described by a Hamas leader as a “Strategic Tunnel.” The assumption is that the tunnel was dug in order to kidnap Israeli soldiers and/or civilians which could be used as a bargaining card for the release of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.
Meanwhile, the current talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority pose an additional challenge to Hamas. Hamas is trying to generate violence in the West Bank, hoping to evoke an Israeli-Palestinian outbreak of violence in the West Bank, thus causing the talks to collapse. Indeed, over the last few weeks several violent incidents in the West Bank signal a process of deterioration and escalation.
Due to the sensitive timing and the regional circumstances, the killing of A’si could evoke the outburst of new violence between Palestinian organizations in the Gaza Strip and Israel.
Given the current circumstance and events both in its immediate environment (Egypt and Sinai) as well as in more remote arenas (Syria and Lebanon), Hamas is fully aware of the fact that it is not the best time to launch a new military confrontation with Israel.
However, it is possible that Hamas estimates that IJP would like to use the killing of A’si as an excuse to generate a military round with Israel, thus dragging Hamas into a new military round at a time that would be worse for Hamas.
Understanding that may help us understand why Hamas rushed to announce that A’si was a member of Hamas’s military wing. By doing that Hamas secures itself the “right” to retaliate for the killing of its militant at the right time and the right place. Allowing IJP to claim that A’si was its member means leaving IJP the “right” to decide when and how to retaliate, and unlike Hamas, IJP will not postpone its retaliation.
As happens unfortunately quite frequently in our neighborhood, we are heading towards tense days. The next 24-48 hours are going to be tense in the area of the Gaza Strip.
Avi Melamed, former Israeli Senior Official on Arab affairs and a former intelligence official and educator, is an independent Middle East strategic intelligence analyst. He is also founder and creator of Feenjan, a non-profit organization that presents contemporary Israeli society and culture to the Arab world in Arabic.