Palestinian Islamic Jihad starts a fire in Gaza

The Iranian proxy group has been behind a string of attacks in recent weeks designed to sabotage Egyptian-led efforts to steer Gaza towards calm.

Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 4, 2019. Credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.
Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 4, 2019. Credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.

The Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terrorist organization, the second-largest armed faction in Gaza, is responsible for the latest escalation in Gaza and Israel.

In recent weeks, PIJ, whose rocket arsenal is larger than that of Hamas, has conducted a string of attacks that it did not take responsibility for. The goal of these attacks appears to be the sabotage of Egyptian-led efforts to stabilize Gaza.

PIJ’s attacks include the launching of a rocket on April 29, which exploded in the Mediterranean Sea near a southern Israeli city. More recently, on May 3, the PIJ conducted a sniper attack on Israel Defense Forces’ soldiers on the Gaza border during a Hamas-organized border riot. That shooting wounded an Israeli officer and a female soldier. It is that event that triggered the current flare-up. Starting on Saturday, hundreds of rockets and mortars have been fired from Gaza.

Israel accused the PIJ’s commander in northern Gaza, Bahaa Abu Al Ata, of being behind the April 29 rocket attack, which no group took responsibility for.

One possibility is that PIJ’s Syria-based radical secretary-general, Ziad Nakhala, who is extremely close to Iran and a frequent visitor to it, passed along orders to the faction’s commanders in Gaza to keep attacks on Israel going.

Egypt has worked hard to push Gaza away from the brink—efforts that the PIJ, Iran’s direct proxy, is apparently trying to undo.

Iran, for its part, is under growing economic distress and battling widening American sanctions. The Islamic Republic has a network of proxy groups around the Middle East, which it can activate in response to developments such as the recent U.S. designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.

Iran could also seeking revenge for events in Syria. An airstrike, attributed by international media reports to Israel, destroyed Iranian targets near the northwestern Syrian city of Masyaf on April 12,  reportedly resulting in Iranian casualties.

On March 27, an Iranian weapons’ warehouse near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo was destroyed in an airstrike, which also reportedly resulted in casualties.

Israel is committed to preventing Iran from building military bases in Syria.

Either way, according to Israeli intelligence assessments, Hamas has been dragged into this latest escalation after failing to call out PIJ or enforce its sovereignty in Gaza.

During a conference call with journalists, the head of the IDF’s International Media Branch, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, confirmed that PIJ has “over the last week been trying to destabilize the area, and execute different attacks below the threshold, without being accountable, while trying to outsmart or trick Hamas.”

He described “numerous covert attempts” by PIJ to do this, while the faction simultaneously attends mediation talks in Egypt together with Hamas, which it pretends to cooperate with.

“Hamas has been unable so far to really control PIJ,” said Conricus. “We see that Hamas is deterred by PIJ, and [that it has] not been implementing its sovereignty over it.”

‘A reckless, coordinated fire effort’

Hamas, for its part, has stuck with the “on-off” tactic of border riots, and sending arson and explosive balloons over the border into Israel as part of its extortion campaign to convince Israel to agree to its economic and infrastructure demands for Gaza. But that “controlled escalation” approach may well have collapsed over the weekend.

Following the PIJ sniper attack on Friday, the IDF responded by striking a manned Hamas position nearby, killing three members of Hamas’s armed wing. Conricus described that response as an “immediate tactical response. … Our troops came under fire, and we responded in the nearest place where we saw enemy officers.”

What followed was a wave of heavy rocket and mortar fire on Israeli civilians, launched by both PIJ and Hamas. Hamas abandoned its more “cautious” approach in favor of the escalation that PIJ initiated. Hundreds of rocket attacks followed.

“This is a reckless, coordinated fire effort by PIJ and Hamas, who are firing from almost all parts of Gaza at different Israeli civilian communities,” Conricus stated. “We have been responding by hitting military targets.”

As Gazan terrorist cells launch projectiles from densely populated urban areas in Gaza, Israel’s Iron Dome air-defense batteries have intercepted most of the threats headed for populated areas. Conricus described the interception rate as “good.”

Israeli airstrikes have killed some five to six Gazan terrorists thus far, according to the IDF. Israel targeted dozens of PIJ and Hamas sites—a combination of weapons production facilities and military posts.

Israel is expected to broaden its air campaign in the coming hours.  The Israel Air Force also destroyed a cross-border PIJ attack tunnel, dug from the Rafah area of southern Gaza into Israel.

“They expedited the digging over the past weeks,” Conricus said, referring to PIJ, “in an attempt to have an operational infrastructure to conduct a terrorist attack. We monitored that digging for a long time. The tunnel did cross the fence into Israel. Now, we decided to attack and neutralize it.”

The Israeli military is preparing for what may come next, if the flare-up does not die down. At this stage, at least, it appears as if Israel’s goal is to get Hamas to rein in PIJ and commit to keeping it in check before considering any further steps.

In the meantime, Israel is reinforcing its air-defense systems, sharpening intelligence capabilities and deploying Home Front Command crews around the country to aid civilians in dealing with rocket attacks.

Israel has sealed all the border crossings with Gaza and closed the fishing zone off the coast.

Meanwhile, Israeli civilians are on high alert, and authorities have called on them to be attentive to rocket alerts. Compliance with safety procedures saved lives on Saturday, said Conricus.

Alluding to where the escalation may lead, he added: “If needed, we have the ability to mobilize ground forces.”

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