Opinion

Iran’s proxy war

Israeli decision-makers must understand the nature of the struggle and continue to act against Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s entrenchment as a significant military force in the West Bank.

Gunmen attend the funeral in Jenin of Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist Matin Dabaya, who was killed during clashes with Israeli forces, Oct. 14, 2022. Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90.
Gunmen attend the funeral in Jenin of Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist Matin Dabaya, who was killed during clashes with Israeli forces, Oct. 14, 2022. Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90.
Shaul Bartal

On Jan. 26, 2023, Israel eliminated a Palestinian Islamic Jihad cell in the heart of Jenin, including a leader of the organization’s Jenin Brigade, Salahat Ezz a-Din. This operation returned the spotlight to PIJ, a proxy organization that works to change the regional order in the Iranian interest.

In early August 2022, PIJ threatened violence against Israel unless Sheikh Bassam al-Saadi, the group’s leader in Judea in Samaria, was freed. This threat led to “Operation Breaking Dawn” (August 5–7, 2022). This heightened activity by PIJ, especially in northern Samaria, with an emphasis on Jenin, reflects Iran’s efforts to use its proxies to create a balance of deterrence.

There are other examples of Iranian proxies threatening Israel on Tehran’s behalf in the Palestinian arena, which Tehran perceives as an Israeli weak spot. Hezbollah, for instance, threatened to strike the Karish gas field with Yakhont (P-800 Oniks) missiles before the signing of the maritime border agreement with Lebanon; Hamas warned that Israel would regret holding its annual flag march in the capital on Jerusalem Day.

What is common to all three organizations (Hezbollah, PIJ and Hamas) is the considerable military assistance and support they receive from Iran. Through the organizations it sponsors, Iran has forged a broad terrorist front that includes the Houthis in Yemen and Shi’ite militia organizations in Iraq and Syria. Iran’s proxies strive to create a new equation vis-à-vis Israel—a country that prefers quiet to military operations, even though, in the Middle East, quiet is an elusive thing.

PIJ was established under Iranian influence in the early 1980s. Its founder, Fathi Shaqaqi, authored the book “Al-Khomeini al-Hal al-Islami wa-al-Badil” (Khomeini, the Islamic Solution and the Alternative). This book views the Iranian revolution as the model for a comprehensive Islamic revolution that will foster a widespread Islamic renaissance.

Since its establishment, the group has carried out a succession of terror attacks, with Iran providing it with the necessary logistical infrastructure of weapons, ammunition, money and guidance. PIJ operatives in Gaza are proud of the advanced weapons and drones in their possession, some of which are produced locally and some with Iranian technology.

Since the 1980s, following a series of Israeli actions, the group’s leaders, including current head Ziyad al-Nakhalah, have been living in Syria. PIJ does not have an extensive dawah (Islamic charity) infrastructure like Hamas, and concentrates primarily on terrorist activity against Israel. According to its leader, “Resistance is the only choice with which we can restore our people’s rights.”

PIJ states repeatedly on its various websites that jihad and the struggle against Israel will be “eternal until victory.” Its spokesmen say jihad is legal (according to Islamic law) and a national duty. Its jihad activity in Judea and Samaria is based on an array of brigades spread across Jenin, Tulkarem and other districts, similar to Gaza.

On Aug. 2, 2022, the Jerusalem Brigades, the military wing of PIJ, declared that the jihad would continue until victory over the enemy. This statement came against the backdrop of the death in Jenin of 17-year-old PIJ operative Derrar Alkafarini. While statements of this kind are common on the group’s websites, PIJ does not require any special pretext to threaten or attack Israel. The group’s recent stepped-up activity stems from something deeper: namely, its relationship with Iran.

In the eight years that have passed since “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014, PIJ has grown in strength and armament, and the organization now believes it is equipped to respond to the IDF capabilities displayed during that clash. In a manifesto PIJ issued in July 2022, it sang its own praises and hailed its purported ultimate victory.

PIJ appears to have augmented its power and capabilities with Iranian assistance and support, and its operations are gaining more and more legitimacy among the Palestinian public. Its activity in Jenin is part of the “Unity of the Fronts” approach that PIJ adopted last year. It was not by happenstance that the group chose to call the 2022 operation, in which two of its top commanders were killed, Unity of the Fronts. The fronts in the Palestinian space to which this phrase refers—eastern Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip—could also include Lebanon, Syria and all Iran’s other proxy organizations.

On Jan. 5, 2023, Ziyad al-Nakhalah declared that the role model admired above all by PIJ fighters is Qassem Soleimani. He described Soleimani as a martyr-hero and a brave fighter honored by all the resistance fronts and their offshoots. Soleimani was the Islamic Revolutionary Guard commander assassinated by the United States in January 2020. In its publications, PIJ sets forth its aim to conduct a terror attack to mark the anniversary of his death. At the January gathering, al-Nakhalah also expressed his esteem for beloved comrade and great commander Karim Younis, who was freed last month after 40 years in prison for the murder of Israeli soldier Avi Bromberg in 1980.

PIJ’s threats to attack Israel if it did not release Sheikh Saadi marked the first time the group had conveyed through the media, and in Hebrew, a clear ultimatum with regard to the freeing of a prisoner. PIJ highlighted Sheikh Saadi’s medical condition and made much of the court’s refusal to permit the publication of his photograph. A declaration by the Jerusalem Brigades on Aug. 1, 2022, stated: “We announce a general mobilization and a heightening of the [operational] alert in response to the call to fulfill [our] duty toward the treacherous enemy that assaulted the great commander Sheikh Bassam al-Saadi and his family a short time ago in Jenin.”

On Aug. 3, al-Nakhaleh proclaimed that “the resistance frameworks in the Gaza Strip are strong and the resistance force has grown and has many capabilities.” He discussed a meeting in Tehran with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and said “the resistance brigades urgently need to unite and coalesce in order to bolster the Islamic resistance of the Palestinian people.” He underlined “the important role and the important place of the Islamic Republic [Iran], Syria and the Lebanese resistance in supporting the Islamic resistance front.”

Al-Nakhaleh’s visit to Iran was not in vain, and may have been deliberately timed. Sheikh Saadi’s arrest appears to have been a pretext for Iran’s proxies to launch a local military operation against Israel. The meeting between al-Nakhaleh and senior Iranian officials was apparently intended to prepare the ground for further wide-scale clashes in Gaza, the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, possibly to include Hamas.

PIJ is voicing new threats following the killing of the group’s operatives in Jenin, including grandsons of Sheikh Saadi who were themselves well-known fighters. Threats in Hebrew on Facebook include a declaration of revenge: “The sons of Islamic Jihad are coming.” PIJ’S issuing of warnings in Hebrew is a form of psychological warfare that the group, which receives most of its budget from Tehran, is developing with Iranian assistance.

PIJ is more than a terrorist organization with a broad pan-Islamic outlook blended with Palestinian nationalism, and does not operate in a vacuum. Together with Hamas and Hezbollah, PIJ represent a “resistance axis” that seeks to fashion a new strategic equation vis-à-vis Israel in Iran’s interests. This new equation is essentially a kind of protection racket. Quiet on Israel’s borders, in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria will entail significant concessions and sacrifices regarding Israeli sovereignty and the IDF’s ability to act.

PIJ’s struggle against Israel is driven by the Iranian desire to heat up the West Bank front, including eastern Jerusalem, particularly against the backdrop of the approaching Ramadan. Actions by PIJ have the potential to aggravate the security situation and lead to suspension of Israel’s security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, as occurred after the Jenin operation. Israeli decision-makers must understand the nature of the struggle and continue to act against Islamic Jihad’s entrenchment as a significant military force in the West Bank. This is essential in order to prevent the “unity of the fronts” that Iran is trying to achieve through the proxy organizations, with Islamic Jihad at the forefront.

 Lt. Col. (res.) Shaul Bartal is a senior researcher at the BESA Center and a research fellow at the Instituto do Oriente at the University of Lisbon. During his military service he held various posts in the West Bank. He has taught in the Department of Middle Eastern History and the Department of Political Science at Bar-Ilan University.

Originally published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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