The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Gaza’s factions vie for influence, civilians bear the cost of war

Palestinians sit in the ruins of their home after Israeli airstrikes over the weekend in the Gaza Strip. (Mohammed Saber/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

GAZA CITY — Safa Shamalakh sat in a shady doorway and stared at the tangle of concrete and metal that was once her home. An Israeli missile, targeting the apartment of a suspected Palestinian Islamic Jihad operative next door, had demolished both structures last weekend. She and her neighbors were warned to evacuate in the minutes before the blast.

It’s not the first time her block has been collateral damage. The building one lot over was destroyed by Israel a year ago during an 11-day war against Hamas, Islamic Jihad’s biggest internal rival. She blames Israel for the bombings, but laments the “bad luck” of living where both militant groups are active.

Shamalakh, a 31-year-old shopkeeper with a lifelong neurological condition that limits her ability to walk, has no affiliation with either group, designated as terrorist organizations by the United States. But as they compete for support in the Gaza Strip, and battle with Israel, it is civilians like her in this densely packed enclave of 2.2 million people that often pay the price.

“Every year it is getting nearer,” she said. “This time, we lost everything.”

This time it was Islamic Jihad that engaged in two days of hostilities with Israel, which left 47 Gazans dead. The escalation began after Israel arrested one of the group’s senior leaders in the West Bank. Israel then launched a “preemptive” strike Friday against what it said was an “imminent” reprisal attack being planned by the group.

Islamic Jihad, or PIJ, said just 12 of those killed were active in its ranks. The rest, including 16 children, had no connection to the group, it said.

Hamas, which has governed the Gaza Strip since it won elections in 2006, sat out this round of fighting. Many here were relieved that the dominant faction kept its rockets quiet, preventing an even greater eruption of violence. But some supporters of Islamic Jihad criticized the restraint, predicting that their smaller, more militant group would gain followers.

“That was not good,” said Abu Omar Khadoura, 71, the imam of a mosque in north Gaza, known to be a center of Islamic Jihad supporters. “I think the popularity of Islamic Jihad has increased, God willing.”

Hamas, Khadoura said, had become more concerned with governing than with fighting. He noted that thousands more Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank had gotten permits to work in Israel in recent months, which many have credited with reducing conflict in the year since the last war.

“It’s not about work, it’s about dignity,” he said in his mosque after noon prayers, the ceiling fans stopping every time Gaza’s irregular power supply cut out. “Islamic Jihad cares more about the enemy that has to be erased.”

But on social media and in private conversations, other Gazans expressed frustration with Islamic Jihad. Having more than one group fighting with Israel made violence more likely, they said, even as Hamas seemed focused on maintaining the relative calm, and as rebuilding was beginning to gain traction.

“Nobody is saying that Islamic Jihad did a great job this time,” said an auto mechanic in Rafa on the Egyptian border, where an Israeli strike killed the group’s southern commander, Khaled Mansour, and six others, including a 14-year-old boy and two women.

The man, who asked not to be identified out of concern for his security, thinks the violent weekend showed that the militant group is not up to a full conflict with Israel.

“It seems they are not as powerful as Hamas,” he said.

In one video circulating on WhatsApp, a Palestinian man blames the group for caring more about the release of its leader arrested in the West Bank than “the blood of children and ordinary people” killed by Israeli airstrikes.

“All of this to please PIJ,” he railed near the scene of an airstrike.

Hamas leaders, meanwhile, downplay their rivalry with Islamic Jihad. Their fighters may not have taken part in the fighting, but they expressed solidarity with the smaller group, even as they worked with its leaders and Egyptian and Qatari negotiators to bring an end to the violence.

The two organizations maintain a council that lets them communicate and coordinate when necessary. The “Joint Room” was activated when it came time to implement the cease-fire that went into effect late Sunday, said Basem Naim, head of Hamas’s political division.

“Yes, we’ve had some problems [with Islamic Jihad],” Naim said in an interview. “Maybe we have a difference when it comes to tactics, but at the end of the day our goal is the same, to get rid of the occupation.”

But the groups are working with different weapons — PIJ’s rockets are smaller and less accurate, increasing the danger for Gazans. The Israeli military said about 200 of the 1,100 rockets the group launched fell short and landed inside Gaza. Israel said some of the fatalities were caused by those projectiles, most notably a strike in the Jabalya refugee camp that killed at least four children, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.

Gaza officials declined to comment on the specifics of the incident, but said Israel was to blame for all deaths.

A spokesman for the Gaza Interior Ministry, Eyad al-Bozom, said Israel “bears full responsibility for this crime and all the crimes it commits during its brutal aggression against our people in the Gaza Strip.”

In Jabalya on Wednesday, in his shop a few doors down from the demolished car that marks where a strike exploded in a crowded street, Tariq Muqebel, 31, recalled the shattering blast, the bodies “cut to pieces.”

He has lived through too many wars, with all sides shooting at one another, to seek blame for one particular explosion, he said.

“At the end of the day, the ones who lose are the people,” he said. “Who fired the rockets? It doesn’t matter. Who was killed? Civilians and children.”

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