Another conflict in Gaza, but with a difference: Hamas abstained.

The weekend’s brief conflict over Gaza had an eerily familiar outcome: dozens of Palestinians killed, including militant leaders and children, and dozens of homes damaged or destroyed, most by Israeli airstrikes but some by Palestinian failures.

But one thing was different from the usual fighting: Hamas, the de facto civilian government in Gaza, remained on the sidelines. A smaller Islamist group, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, has taken the lead in rocket fire — more than 1,000 of them — and borne the brunt of Israeli airstrikes, which began Friday in anticipation of what Israel has labeled as an imminent attack by Islamic Jihad.

Although not unprecedented, Hamas’ decision confirmed the complex and changing role the movement has taken on since it took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. It also highlighted the frictions among Palestinian Islamist militants on how best to fight Israel, and pointed to both the influence of Iran – which supports both Hamas and Islamic Jihad – and the limits of that support.

Hamas is still a military force that opposes the existence of Israel and is considered a terrorist group by Israel and the United States. But unlike Islamic Jihad, it is also a ruling administration and a social movement. Although authoritarian, Hamas is sensitive to public opinion in the enclave and must also deal, if only indirectly, with Israel to ease the more restrictive aspects of a 15-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade which was applied after the group seized power and decimated living conditions in Gaza.

By holding fire over the weekend, Hamas showed signs of Palestinian fatigue with the prospect of another confrontation with Israel, at least the sixth under Hamas’s tenure. He also suggested that Hamas feared losing several small but important economic measures Israel has offered Gaza since the last major confrontation in May 2021, including 14,000 Israeli work permits that have boosted the Strip’s economy.

At a briefing for reporters on Monday, a senior Israeli official, speaking anonymously to discuss the issue more freely, said Israel’s policy of offering more work permits over the course of the year had played an important role in distancing Hamas from this round. of fights. The official said this would encourage Israel to step up its approach in the future.

While no one expects the fundamental dynamics in Gaza to change, let alone the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some analysts, diplomats and officials hope that the perceived success of this compromise will encourage Israel to ease more restrictions on the future, further reducing the likelihood of violence.

“Hamas doesn’t want war right now,” said Hugh Lovatt, an expert on Palestinian politics at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a research group. “There is a more pragmatic relationship between Hamas and Israel that has developed. To some extent, this could be reciprocal.

Publicly, Hamas and Islamic Jihad declared solidarity during and after the weekend conflict and promised to join forces again in the future, just as they had done in previous fighting in 2008. 2014 and 2021.

Basically, both groups have a similar goal and ideology. They have their roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, the global Islamist movement, and seek to end Israel and replace it with an Islamic Palestinian state.

Muhammad al-Hindi, an Islamic Jihad official, told a Turkish broadcaster on Sunday that there was no rift between the two groups. “Our relationship with Hamas has become stronger and more solid,” Mr. al-Hindi said. “We entered battles together and we will enter battles side by side, together.”

In a statement posted on its website on Saturday, Hamas said it remained “united” with Islamic Jihad, adding that “fighters of all factions face this aggression as one.”

But the divergent behavior of the two groups during the conflict reflects their different current priorities as well as their historical histories.

Founded more than four decades ago, Islamic Jihad is older, smaller, and primarily concerned with violent opposition to Israel. He has little interest even in participating in Palestinian political structures.

Hamas, formed in 1987, is comparatively more pragmatic – a social and political movement as well as an activist.

He opposed efforts by the Palestine Liberation Organization, the internationally recognized representative of the Palestinians, to seek a peace agreement with Israel in the 1990s, staging a deadly campaign of terrorism to derail that process. .

But Hamas nevertheless participates in Palestinian elections, winning the last legislative elections in 2006. It has worked in unity governments within the Palestinian Authority, even after having wrested Gaza from the control of the authority. And in recent years, he has signaled a willingness to negotiate a long-term truce with Israel, while stopping short of acknowledging its legitimacy.

“Ideologically, they’re not really very different – they both believe that Israel has no right to exist in Palestine,” said Azzam Tamimi, a political Islam expert and scholar affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. “But Hamas sees itself as a leader of society, not just a resistance movement.”

Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad receive financial and logistical support from Iran. But their different approaches in recent days show how Islamic Jihad – whose leader Ziad al-Nakhala was visiting Tehran during the conflict – is more susceptible to Iranian influence than Hamas.

During the Syrian civil war, Islamic Jihad never broke with Iran’s close ally Syria, despite the Syrian government’s war against rebels who were, like Islamic Jihad and Hamas, Sunni Islamists. Hamas, however, severed ties with Damascus a decade ago, in solidarity with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and only recently restored them.

“Islamic Jihad decided early on that the Iranian revolution was a model, a beacon of sorts,” Tamimi said. Hamas, he added, “has always insisted that relations with Iran should be based on cooperation without strings attached”.

Islamic Jihad’s battle with Israel could boost its popularity with some Palestinians, but earlier polls suggest it could have the opposite effect in Gaza itself – particularly after some of the group’s rockets appeared missed and fell on civilian areas of the strip, video appears to show. After a series of similar fights in 2019, in which Hamas also stayed out of the fray, nearly half of Gazans believed Hamas was right to do so, and only a third disagreed. ‘OK.

Some Israelis hope that Hamas, trying to maintain favor in Gaza, will continue to stay out of future conflicts if it receives more economic incentives to do so.

“I want to speak directly to the people of the Gaza Strip and tell them: there is another way,” Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a speech Monday night. “We know how to protect ourselves from anyone who threatens us, but we also know how to provide jobs, livelihoods and dignified lives to those who wish to live in peace with us.

Yonatan Touval, an analyst at Mitvim, an Israeli research group, said the situation even presented “an opportunity to advance far-reaching arrangements between the two sides — foremost those involving the reconstruction of Gaza.”

But few expect small economic gestures to fundamentally alter Hamas’s broader outlook, particularly as long as the blockade remains in place. Israel’s granting of 14,000 work permits has increased the incomes of thousands of families, but does not change the lives of the majority. In the overpopulated enclave of 2 million people, nearly half of working-age adults are unemployed and only one in 10 Gazans has access to clean water.

“Absent a more sustainable long-term political vision for Gaza,” said Mr. Lovatt, the analyst, “the ceasefire agreement with Israel will at some point reach the limits what he can bring to Gaza and to Hamas”.

Isabelle Kershner and Hiba Yazbek contributed report.