Israelis following the escalation of rocket launches against southern Israel this past week probably noticed all the reports that the Palestinian organization behind the attacks was Islamic Jihad. There were approximately 40 rockets and mortars that were fired by the organization over a two day period. The current round of attacks began with the launch of a Grad rocket that hit near Gedera, on Wednesday, Oct. 26, which also happened to be the anniversary of the 1995 elimination of the founder of Islamic Jihad, Fathi Shakaki, in Malta.
Israel responded three days later by eliminating a five-man rocket squad from Islamic Jihad. It has been largely assumed that Hamas had no interest in escalation at this time since it is waiting for Israel to release from prison the next group from the Shalit exchange. The real explanations for the decision of Islamic Jihad to attack at this time, however, are not to be found in the Gaza Strip, but rather in Tehran.
The Islamic Jihad is a very different organization than Hamas. Shakaki, its main founder was disillusioned with the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent organization of Hamas. Instead he looked to Ayatollah Khomeini for inspiration and even wrote a book entitled "Khomeini: The Islamic Solution and Alternative." The admiration for Iran became a hallmark of Islamic Jihad and even led some of its activists in the 1990's to convert from Sunni Islam to Shiite Islam.
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By 2000, while Saudi Arabia emerged as the main funder of Hamas, Islamic Jihad was backed financially by Iran, providing it with tighter control of the organization. Eventually, Iran replaced Saudi Arabia as Hamas' main benefactor, but the regional loyalties of Hamas were also directed to the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, its supporters in the Gulf states, like Qatar, and increasingly Turkey under Erdogan. Over the last decade, Islamic Jihad emerged as the most reliable instrument that Iran could use when it wanted to destabilize the situation between Israel and the Palestinians.
Today, Tehran's interests in promoting a military conflict between Israel and the Palestinians are multiple. First, Iran's priority is to save Bashar Assad's regime in Syria. Television pictures of Israeli-Palestinian exchanges of fire provide a useful distraction from the YouTube images that are constantly broadcast of the systematic slaughter of Sunni Arabs in Syrian cities like Homs. Renewed Israeli-Palestinian escalation might force the Arab League to re-engage with the Palestinian issue, instead of pressuring Assad to make the reforms they are demanding.
Second, it must be remembered that the fall of the Alawite government in Syrian and its replacement with a new Sunni-dominated regime could have devastating effects on Iran's regional position. The Sunni-population of Iraq would no longer accept the supremacy of the Iraqi Shiites that came about as a result of the Iraq War. It might re-new its insurgency, expecting the support of Sunni Syria. The same calculation might be made by the Sunni population of Lebanon, who would be less prone to accept the domination of Hezbollah in their country. The Sunnis in all these countries would not look to Iran to be their protector; they might seek the help of Turkey. In short, important Iranian interests are at stake.
Hamas is in an awkward position in this situation. It remains a movement firmly dedicated to "muqawama" (resistance), but it has reasons to prefer quiet at this time and not only because of its prisoners. It can achieve a strategic change in the Middle East, in its favor, if political processes lead to a Muslim Brotherhood takeover in Egypt and its rise to power in other Arab states. Under such circumstances, Islamic Jihad is a better instrument for Iran than Hamas, whose interests differ from those of Tehran. And as Iran senses that its power is growing with the impending U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and its march to nuclear weapons capability, it will be more prone to use proxy forces like Islamic Jihad to advance its interests and protect them from its challengers in the region.
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