A rocket assault on southern Israel by an Iranian-backed Palestinian terrorist faction in the Gaza Strip is the latest reminder of the Islamic Republic’s long reach, and the ability of Iran’s armed proxies to destabilize multiple parts of the Middle East.
The rocket attack, which targeted southern Israeli villages at the end of October, sent civilians fleeing for cover, and was conducted by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the second largest armed organization in Gaza. PIJ receives funding from Tehran, and pledges full ideological allegiance to Iran’s radical Shi’ite regime – the only Sunni Palestinian organization to do so.
The Israeli air force struck nearly 100 targets in Gaza in retaliation. The attack was something both Iran and the PIJ leadership at its Damascus, Syria, headquarters wanted, Israeli officials said.
PIJ claimed the attack was a response to the deaths of five Palestinians killed in clashes with Israeli forces in weekly Friday border disturbances. But it appears more likely that PIJ used the incident as an opportunity to transmit a warning about its ability – and the ability of its sponsor, Iran – to plunge Israel and Gaza into war.
PIJ sent this warning just as Egypt was mediating between Israel and Hamas to create a long-term truce arrangement in Gaza.
The incident underscores the fact that PIJ and its estimated 10,000 operatives remains the most unpredictable actor in the Gaza Strip, and that Iran has the ability to set the area alight. PIJ’s leadership in Damascus, Beirut, and Gaza, or any one of the terror group’s local operatives in Gaza, acting independently on a whim, can spark a new destructive escalation.
Hamas, itself a radical Islamist entity, is struggling to balance between its commitment to armed conflict and terrorism against Israel, and its role as a sovereign ruler of Gaza, with territory and power to lose.
PIJ, on the other hand, has no such dilemmas. While it has agreed in principle to abide by Hamas’s requests to hold its fire and give the Egyptian mediation efforts a chance, the latest rocket attack is an example of how quickly PIJ – and by extension, Iran – can drag Gazans and Israelis into a new crisis.
With its own rocket production factories, tunnel networks, and weapons arsenal, PIJ remains a highly destabilizing element in Gaza, which Iran can activate as a proxy force to project its power on the region, just as Iran can do with other radical actors. Whether it is Hizballah in Lebanon and Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, or an assortment of Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Syria, Iran has a range of options at its disposal if it chooses to engage in regional pyromania.
The recent appointment of Ziad al-Nakhleh, a PIJ leader who coordinates his activities closely with the Iranians, as secretary-general of the organization, means Gaza’s second largest armed group will continue to serve Iran’s interests for the foreseeable future.
PIJ declared a ceasefire immediately after Israel’s extensive retaliation, and calm returned to Gaza. But that calm could be shattered if Iran decides to activate its proxy, a possibility that Iranian officials have suggested they might as they unleash a torrent of threats in the shadow of new U.S. sanctions.
On Tuesday, the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, Ataoallah Salehi, praised Hizballah, and said Israeli bomb shelters “will turn into mass graves in a future war,” according to Iran’s Tasnim news agency.
In October, the commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, Mohammad Jafari, claimed Israel is “moving closer to its end.” Such threats are in line with Iran’s ideological commitment to Israel’s destruction and its strategic goal of becoming a regional hegemon.
The same Iranian approach appeared to be on display in July, when Iranian-aligned Houthis attacked two Saudi oil tankers in the Red Sea, causing oil prices to climb.
That too could be an Iranian show of force, designed to display a willingness and ability to terrorize the region and destabilize it, if the regime in Tehran feels that would serve its interests. Iran also routinely threatens to directly strike Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE with ballistic missiles.
The threat posed by PIJ is therefore one part of a web of Iranian proxy groups that can be activated when Tehran wants, while trying to maintain some degree of deniability.
Yet this tactic may not be so risk free for the Iranians and their allies. Israel’s response to subsequent Gaza rocket attacks “may not be geographically contained to Gaza,” an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman said, a possible reference to PIJ’s assets outside of Gaza, or to Iranian forces operating in Syria.
Iran’s dangerous long reach, and large-scale sponsorship of terrorism, could come back to haunt it.
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, JNS, and is the Israel correspondent for IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.