Israeli warplanes struck Islamic Jihad fighters in Gaza for a second day on Tuesday but Hamas, the dominant militant group in the Strip, continued to stay out of the fighting.
More than 24 hours into the fighting in Gaza, Israeli officials said Hamas had so far not come to the aid of its Islamic Jihad allies and was refraining from firing its own rockets into southern Israel.
Israel is eager to exploit the divisions between the two main Palestinian militant groups and announced it was that it was specifically targeting Islamic Jihad fighters and facilities but not striking Hamas.
However, the longer the fighting continues the more likely it is that Hamas will feel forced to join in the fighting, potentially leading to a broader confrontation, an Israeli official said.
At least 16 people, mainly Islamic Jihad fighters, have been killed by Israeli strikes in Gaza since Monday morning. More than 200 rockets have been fired into Israel but so far there have been no serious injuries or fatalities.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, said Israel would continue striking in Gaza until Islamic Jihad ceased its rocket fire. “They understand we will continue hitting them with no mercy. We are determined to fight and protect ourselves,” he said.
Egypt and the UN are attempting to broker a ceasefire but so far have been unable to reach a deal to end the fighting.
Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2007. While it remains a militant group that carries out attacks on Israel, its main priority is trying to appease public anger in Gaza by improving the dire humanitarian and economic situation in the Strip.
Over the past year, Hamas has made start-stop efforts at indirect negotiations with Israel - offering to maintain quiet on the border in return for Israel easing the decade-long blockade that has crushed Gaza’s economy.
Islamic Jihad, a smaller militant group backed by Iran, has no such governing responsibilities and in recent months has tried to outflank Hamas by presenting itself as a more radical opponent of Israel.
Israel said it assassinated Baha Abu al-Ata, the top Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza, on Tuesday because he was responsible for several recent rocket attacks against Israel and was planning more.
While Hamas condemned the killing of al-Ata and his wife in an Israeli airstrike, it has so far not sent its forces to aid Islamic Jihad’s attacks against Israel. An Israeli official said the longer the fighting continued, however, the more Hamas would feel pressure to join Islamic Jihad in the fight.
“Hamas understands that Islamic Jihad brought this situation on itself and so Hamas is trying not to be actively involved in the current conflict,” the official said.
“But there is a timestamp on this strategy because Hamas needs internal legitimacy. The longer this conflict continues the harder it will be for Hamas not to take part.”
Israel’s normal policy in Gaza is to strike Hamas targets in response to any fire from the Strip, as a way of encouraging Hamas to keep a lid on smaller militant groups like Islamic Jihad and Salafist factions.
But Gilad Erdan, Israel’s public security minister, said Wednesday that Israel had shifted its normal policy and was focusing its fire exclusively on Islamic Jihad for now.
Islamic Jihad confirmed that at least 10 of its fighters had been killed so far, including al-Ata. Another Gaza commander, Khaled Farraj, was killed by an Israeli airstrike early on Wednesday.
Schools remained closed in both Gaza and southern Israel as the fighting continued. Schools and businesses were re-opened in Tel Aviv after being shut on Tuesday.
The main crossing for goods and humanitarian supplies from Gaza to Israel remains shut.