Prompted by Iran, Palestinian Islamic Jihad plays lead role in Gaza escalation

PIJ is challenging Hamas, which is less interested in an escalation or full-out war with Israel and more interested in reaching an arrangement to prevent an economic collapse of the Gaza Strip and avoid the risk of a popular rebellion against its Islamist regime.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad members attend a funeral in Gaza, Sept. 8, 2019. Photo by Hassan Jedi/Flash90.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad members attend a funeral in Gaza, Sept. 8, 2019. Photo by Hassan Jedi/Flash90.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the second-largest armed terror faction in Gaza, has in recent days taken a lead role in the latest escalation with Israel. PIJ, which is funded and orchestrated by Iran, has an interest in inflaming the security situation and  destabilizing the region.

Unlike Hamas, PIJ has no responsibility for Gaza’s estimated 2 million people.

PIJ is challenging Hamas, which for the most part is not interested in an escalation or full-out war with Israel at this time, and is instead interested in reaching an arrangement to prevent an economic collapse of the Gaza Strip and avoid the risk of a popular rebellion against its Islamist militant regime.

It is therefore safe to assume that PIJ fired five rockets into southern Israel on Friday night, narrowly missing an Israeli family fleeing into a safe room in Sderot.

In retaliation, the Israel Air Force struck Hamas military targets in northern Gaza as part of Israel’s policy of holding Gaza’s ruling entity responsible for what occurs in its territory.

It also seems safe to assume that PIJ is the organization behind the armed drone attack on an IDF Humvee vehicle on Saturday, which caused light damage, but no injuries..

The drone dropped an explosive device on the border before flying back into Gaza. In response, the IAF targeted the squad, though apparently did not hit it. Later on Saturday, the IAF hit Hamas military targets, including naval attack bases, and Hamas’s “aerial array” (a reference to its drone program) in northern and central Gaza.

The latest escalation comes after some 6,200 Gazan rioters descended on the Israeli-Gazan border fence on Friday afternoon. They hurled explosive devices, grenades and firebombs at security forces. The IDF described that event as “especially violent,” adding that security fence sustained damage in several locations. Two Gazan youths were killed in Israeli fire, as the Israel Defense Forces sought to prevent any intrusions that would endanger southern villages and towns.

In the meantime, Israeli-government officials issued warnings about what would happen if the current violence continues. “The next round will be a general [broad conflict] round, and we are trying to prevent it. In this [next] round, the top terrorist leadership will be destroyed,” vowed Foreign Minister Israel Katz, as told to Kan Radio. “Hamas and PIJ are bringing their end closer, by linking up to Iran and [Quds Force commander Qassem] Soleimani, and by turning into an Iranian tool.” His statement comes as many southern Israeli civilians have expressed despair over the ongoing war of attrition that Gazan terrorists have been subjecting them to for more than 18 months.

PIJ has attempted to cover up the fact that it is doing Iran’s bidding in the region and denies placing Gazans at risk on behalf of a foreign, radical power.

Khader Habib, a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad official, stated in an interview to the Palestinian news website Donia al-Watan on Aug. 27 that his organization “does not take orders from Iran, but only support and makes decision independently,” according a report by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. Habib was responding to accusations from Israel last month that pointed fingers to his organization for firing rockets from Gaza on Aug. 25, as part PIJ’s response to Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria.

Such denials are hollow, and are designed to alleviate pressure from Gazans and Hamas.

However, some observers in Israel also believe that even if Hamas isn’t directly behind the latest attacks, it’s not very motivated to stop them either.

A rise in ‘controlled violence’

Col. (ret.) Reuven Erlich, director of the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, told JNS on Sunday that although Hamas did not take a decision to escalate things into war, “it is not trying its best” to stop border attacks.

August saw four attempts by armed terror squads—none of them officially affiliated with any organizations—to infiltrate Israel, before being stopped by the IDF. Several members of the squad were killed in firefights and IDF strikes.

As for the ITIC’s assessment, it noted that at the present time, Hamas is not overly motivated to carry out effective measures to prevent the attempted penetrations because they are popular among the public. Moreover, Hamas considers them as a tool for exerting pressure for the lull ceasefire agreement.

“We call this controlled violence. It rises and falls. We’re seeing a rise now,” said Erlich. “Clearly, this is brinkmanship that can lead to a deterioration.”

Hamas hasn’t stopped contacts with Egypt, which is acting as an intermediary in seeking an arrangement, he explained, “but it is playing a dangerous game and not trying to prevent what others are doing.”

“Iran and the PIJ have a different agenda from Hamas—we’ve seen this in the past. Yet Hamas knows how to confront PIJ when it wants to. After ‘Operation Protective Edge’ [in 2014], we experienced three years of relative calm. PIJ has a separate agenda, but Hamas has the ability to force its strategy and policy on PIJ,” argued Erlich. “The question is: What is its level of motivation?”

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