(October 29, 2018 / JNS) The rocket assault launched by Palestinian Islamic Jihad on southern Israeli communities over the weekend resulted in the Israeli Air Force striking more than 90 targets belonging to Gazan armed factions. The targets included Hamas’s General Security Services Headquarters building.
But according to Israeli intelligence assessments, PIJ acted under Iranian influence, as well as with the encouragement of the organization’s headquarters in Damascus. As a result, Israeli defense officials are warning that Israel’s response may not be limited to Gaza.
Lt.-Col. Jonathan Conricus, head of the Israel Defense Forces’ international press branch, confirmed that the rocket fire occurred with the encouragement of Iran and PIJ’s leadership abroad.
“Our response may not be geographically contained [to Gaza],” he told JNS.
Conricus declined to discuss why the terror group launched its attack now, but said that the IDF does have concrete evaluations regarding the reasons.
PIJ announced a ceasefire on Saturday, after the IAF pounded targets in Gaza, most of which belonged to Hamas and a minority of which belonged to PIJ. Targets included weapons-production sites, factories for making combat tunnel parts and other military objectives.
Israeli residents of the western Negev region spent Friday night and Saturday morning in rocket-proof rooms and shelters, although Iron Dome missile-defense systems successfully intercepted the incoming threats.
“We don’t recognize any ceasefire,” said Conricus. “We are ready for all scenarios—border attacks, tunnels or rocket-firing. We are prepared to escalate and increase our responses.”
‘Tighten the rope’
The Israeli government is, however, part of Egyptian-mediated talks with Hamas. The talks are aimed at reaching a new long-term truce arrangement.
As part of those talks, PIJ felt that it could apply its own pressure on Israel, Yoram Schweitzer, head of the Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told JNS.
“There is constant tension between PIJ, which has a secondary role in Gaza, and Hamas,” he said. At the same time, he added, “PIJ is in many ways subordinate to the constraints that Hamas places on itself.”
With Hamas raising the violence level in a controlled manner as part of a calculated risk to pressure Israel to ease restrictions on Gaza, PIJ likely chose to respond to the deaths of five Palestinian rioters on the Gaza-Israel border, and did so “with the encouragement of Iran and its overseas headquarters,” assessed Schweitzer assessed.
“The moment Hamas took escalatory steps … PIJ allowed itself to respond too, as it did in the past, when it sustained casualties,” he said. “It can do this without ‘burning the house down.’ ”
Schweitzer also pointed to reports suggesting that PIJ feels neglected by the Egyptian mediators and that it had been pushed aside as contributing factors to PIJ deciding to “tighten the rope,” while stopping short of plunging the region into a war.
While it remains unclear whether PIJ notified Hamas of its intention to fire, Schweitzer said his assumption is that somehow Hamas knew.
“Elements in Hamas’s military wing also wanted to respond more forcefully [to the deaths of Palestinians in border clashes]. All of this was done based on the evaluation that it would not ignite the whole arena. So they took the risk, and immediately moved to accept a ceasefire after they exhibited their jihadist side,” he said.
For its part, Israel has a wide range of responses at its disposal to this challenge, said Schweitzer, adding that Jerusalem should not allow itself to be dragged into a war in Gaza that would run against national interests. Such a war would divert Israel from its strategic long-term interests in the northern arena, he argued, where more powerful enemies are present.
In Lebanon and Syria, Israel faces “rivals that are a level above Hamas, and who want to divert Israel into combat in the south,” affirmed Schweitzer.
The IDF can strike painful blows against Gazan terror organizations “without igniting the entire area, and certainly without being dragged into the Strip,” he argued. “How long can this be contained? For as long as necessary,” Schweitzer said, adding that the government also had to support southern residents with actions, “and not just with words.”