Israeli jets pounded the Gaza Strip on March 12 in the latest volley of fire since violence broke out late last week. But they were not fighting Hamas, Israel's traditional bête noire in Gaza. Though radical factions have now fired more than 200 rockets into Israel, the self-described Islamic Resistance Movement has yet to claim responsibility for a single attack. It may be the first time the organization has refused to lead the charge to battle against Israel.
Hamas has a different fight on its hands. Iran, through the use of its proxies, is fomenting instability in Gaza that it is ill-equipped to handle. Indeed, Tehran is punishing Gaza's de facto rulers for leaving their long-standing alliance.
Rocket fire out of Gaza is rather common, of course. Before the current spasm of violence, the Israelis had reported more than 50 attacks this year. This latest round began on March 9 after an Israeli airstrike killed Zuhair al-Qaissi, the head of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), a group with deep ties to the Iran-backed Hezbollah. Israeli sources commonly report that the two groups share a financial and logistical relationship. Tellingly, the PRC's logo -- featuring an arm brandishing an automatic weapon -- borrows liberally from the Hezbollah flag (which in turns borrows from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps). Qaissi, according to the IDF, was on his way into Israel to carry out a terrorist attack.
Hezbollah condemned the attack from Lebanon, while Iran-backed factions in Gaza fired rockets in retribution. The PRC launched at least 85, by their own (perhaps inflated) count. Palestinian Islamic Jihad -- whose primary patron is also Iran, according to the U.S. intelligence committee -- reportedly launched more than 185. Groups without ties to Iran accounted for a measly eight rockets fired on Israel, according to Israeli government sources.
One Israeli outlet reported that Hamas has allowed other jihadi groups to fire rockets with a wink and a nod. This is difficult to confirm. Meanwhile, Maan News Agency, an independent Palestinian news source, reported that Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh engaged in intense talks brokered by Egypt to bring a halt to the violence. Those negotiations resulted in a cease-fire that went into effect Monday night, although several rockets have already reportedly been fired since.
In fact, the last thing Hamas needs is a war. The militant faction faces its greatest challenge since its creation in 1987: While it has the hardware necessary to fight Israel, it lacks the foreign backing to mount a sustained campaign.
Years of financial sanctions have hammered Tehran for pursuing its illicit nuclear program, denying Iran the cash that it has long provided to Hamas. And after a year of violence in Syria, Hamas's external leaders had no choice but to leave its longtime safe haven, while Haniyeh denounced the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. After all, it's hard to present yourself as a group fighting for justice while your patron slaughters thousands of civilians in the streets.
Numerous reports now indicate that Hamas is drifting from the Iran-Syria axis. While Hamas has not ruptured its relations with Tehran in the same manner that it abandoned Damascus, Iranian leaders are clearly irked that the Palestinian faction has refused to stand by Assad, a key strategic figure for Tehran in the region.