|Three days of fighting between Israel and an Iranian-backed terror group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, ended late on Sunday evening. A ceasefire, negotiated by the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, remains in place. Unlike in previous Gaza conflicts, proscribed terror group Hamas, the enclave’s de facto rulers, remained on the side-lines.
- “Operation Breaking Dawn” commenced on Friday evening when Israel launched a series of strikes on PIJ military targets in response to planned attacks on the Jewish state.
- PIJ fired 1,100 rockets indiscriminately, including towards Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion Airport. Ninety-seven percent of the rockets which were due to land in populated areas were shot down by the Iron Dome. Forty-seven Israelis were taken to hospital, but, thanks to Iron Dome, there were no Israeli fatalities.
- The Gaza Health Ministry said 46 Palestinians had been killed, including 15 minors. The IDF places the overall figure at 51, of whom 24 were PIJ terrorists and 16 killed by misfired PIJ rockets which landed in Gaza. Israel says that 12 of the 15 children who died were killed by PIJ rockets. The IDF said about 200 Islamic Jihad rockets landed inside Gaza. The AP news agency has confirmed Israeli military claims that at least one-third of the Palestinian casualties were caused by PIJ rockets that fell short of their targets.
- On Monday evening, the Israeli prime minister, Yair Lapid, made a rare, direct appeal to the people of Gaza, in which he presented an alternative vision to the cycle of violence and conflict which has wracked the coastal enclave since Hamas seized power in a 2007 coup. “There is another way to live,” he declared.
- While defending the strikes against PIJ, Labor leader Merav Michaeli, who serves as transport minister in the left-right “unity government”, said: “The real problem has not gone away. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has no military solution, but only a political and economic solution.”
Background: a planned attack …
The Israeli security services had been on high alert and conducting anti-terror operations following a spate of terror attacks this spring in which 19 people were killed. The operation has been particularly concerned with a build-up of activity by PIJ in its West Bank stronghold of Jenin and came amid reports to the Military Intelligence Directorate that the terror group would attempt to launch an attack on the Gaza border. Last week, the IDF arrested PIJ’s West Bank commander, Bassem Saadi, in the Jenin area. Threats by PIJ to conduct revenge attacks for the arrest – backed up by new Israeli intelligence of a “concrete” and “imminent” attack – resulted in a virtual lockdown of Israeli communities close to the Gaza border. Roads were closed and train services between the cities of Ashkelon and Sderot halted, amid fears that PIJ snipers and anti-tank rockets would be used to target cars, buses and trains.
… and an Iranian connection
Iran provides PIJ with funds, weapons and training. It was appropriate, therefore, that the group’s leader, Ziyad al-Nakhalah, was meeting the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, in Tehran on Friday as the operation began. He also met with the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Media reports suggest Nakhalah has been under pressure from Iran to conduct an attack on Israel’s borders. “Intelligence services had been monitoring communications between Nakhalah and two of the group’s senior military commanders,” Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer reported in The Times, “and noted the increasingly angry tones in which the commanders demanded the transfer of a large sum of money from Tehran in return for carrying out a spectacular attack on Israel.”
Who are PIJ?
- Like Hamas, PIJ has links to the Muslim Brotherhood and wants to see a Palestinian Islamic state imposed on Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
- While based in Gaza, where it was founded in the early 1980s, PIJ also operates in the West Bank.
- Although smaller, PIJ is more militant than Hamas and, since 2007, has been able to operate freely in Gaza, building a 20,000-strong force, as well as a significant arsenal of rockets, anti-tank missiles and small arms.
Israel’s preventive action
- Israel attacked 170 PIJ targets during its operation. These included 17 observation posts (six of which were manned by PIJ operatives), 45 rocket and mortar launching sites, eight military camps, eight weapon caches, six weapon production facilities, three targets related to the PIJ’s naval force, and a “flagship” “attack tunnel.”
- The initial Israeli strikes on Friday afternoon saw several terrorist squads en route to carry out attacks eliminated.
- Israeli forces also succeeded in targeting three senior PIJ commanders: Tayseer Jabari, who runs the organisation in northern Gaza; Khaled Mansour, the PIJ commander of the southern Gaza Strip; and Rafat al-Zamli, the commander of the PIJ’s rocket unit.
- Israel also targeted 10 squads who were preparing to launch, or had just fired, rockets targeting Israel.
- As well as seeking to avoid civilian casualties – the IDF has subsequently released videos showing operations being delayed or called off at the last moment because civilians were spotted near by – Israel also took care not to attack Hamas sites, thereby avoiding it becoming embroiled in the fighting and setting up a longer, bloodier conflict.
- “During the entire operation, a special effort was made to prevent harm to non-involved civilians,” Lapid said in an address on Monday. “The State of Israel will not apologise for protecting its residents with the use of force, but the deaths of innocent people, especially children, are heartbreaking,” the prime minister said.
- Islamic Jihad said 12 of its fighters were killed, a small armed group said one of its militants died, while Hamas said two of its off-duty policemen were casualties. One of those policemen died alongside his three young children in an explosion which the AP news agency indicated was likely not the result of Israeli strikes.
- AP said its visits to two of the sites in which 12 other people were killed “lent support to suspicions they were caused by rockets that went off course”.
Egypt centre stage
In his remarks on Monday, Lapid thanked Egyptian mediators for helping to bring the fighting to a swift close. Lapid and El-Sissi spoke by phone on Monday. Egypt and Israel also both publicly praised Qatar, which played a significant role in the negotiations. Israel does not have diplomatic relations with the Gulf state, but its closeness to Hamas has allowed the two countries to work together on issues related to Gaza.
A disputed deal
Nonetheless, the ceasefire deal has been the subject of different interpretations by both sides. Speaking in Iran, Nakhalah said that Israel had agreed to release Saadi and another of its commanders, Khalil Awadaad. Israel has flatly denied the claims, although officials have indicated that they want to use the opportunity afforded by the negotiations to restart indirect talks with Hamas to arrange for the return of two Israeli civilians held in Gaza – Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed – as well as the bodies of two Israeli soldiers – Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin – who were killed in the 2014 conflict.
Lapid’s plea: “There is another way to live”
- While serving as foreign minister, Lapid last September laid out a “new vision” for Gaza based on economic revitalisation and reconstruction in return for security.
- Since then, Israel has attempted to soften the restrictions imposed on Gaza by it and Egypt since 2007. In June, the Israeli government increased the number of work permits for Gazans to 14,000 (in mid-2021, it stood at 7,000). With average wages in Israel nearly seven times higher than in Gaza, the move is intended to both pump cash into the coastal enclave, while encouraging stability. Israel has also allowed more goods and materials into Gaza in recent months, easing the path for major projects to rebuild the territory’s infrastructure.
- In his speech on Monday, Lapid said: “I want to turn from here to the residents of Gaza and tell them: There is also another way. We know how to protect ourselves from anyone who threatens us, but we also know how to provide work, livelihood, and a life of dignity to anyone who wants to live in peace by our side. There is another way to live. The path of the Abraham Accords, of the Negev Summit, of innovation and economy, of regional development and joint projects. The choice is yours. Your future depends on you.”
- While restrictions were imposed during last week’s lockdown, Israel moved swiftly after the ceasefire to reopen the border, allowing workers into the country, and supplies, including of much-needed fuel, to flow into Gaza.
Where does Hamas stand?
Israeli media reported that the country’s government used Egypt to relay a message to Hamas that it wouldn’t attack its infrastructure or sites if the terror group stayed out of the fighting with PIJ. But Hamas’ decision to stand aside is also likely to reflect other factors, too. The terror group has not yet replenished its own arsenal following last May’s conflict with Israel. Israeli officials also believe that Hamas will not have wanted to deal with the economic fallout a prolonged border closure would have caused to families in Gaza.
A tactical win for Israel
The IDF said on Tuesday that it “significantly damaged Palestinian Islamic Jihad and its leadership”. Nonetheless, as Haaretz analyst Amos Harel suggested, these are “tactical successes, not a strategic victory, and questions are being asked as to whether Hamas is “playing a double game by winking at Islamic Jihad and occasionally letting it take action” while appearing to maintain the state of “quiet” Israel demands in return for easing restrictions.
Reaction on the Israeli left
- Labor leader Merav Michaeli said: “Residents and residents of Israel deserve to live in security. No sovereign country would agree to besiege its residents by a terrorist organization. The roots and consequences of Islamic Jihad terrorism are at the regional and international level and the Jihad should know that its entire activity, even outside of Gaza, is an open target if it acts against us.”
- After the ceasefire, the transport minister commented: “I congratulate the security forces for precise and determined actions that dealt a heavy blow to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organisation, its leadership and capabilities … Israel showed an effective fight against terrorism. But the real problem has not gone away. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has no military solution, but only a political and economic solution.”
Looking ahead: where LFI stands
LFI condemns the PIJ’s efforts to target Israeli civilians in terror and rocket attacks. The loss of Palestinian civilian life – especially that of children – is tragic and deeply distressing. LFI has previously called for measures to tackle the humanitarian crisis in Gaza; demand Hamas renounces the use of violence and terrorism and releases hostages; support steps towards a permanent ceasefire and the reunification of Gaza and the West Bank; support the construction of a Gaza seaport; and increase work permits and study visas for Palestinians in Gaza. Ultimately, as our chair, Steve McCabe, suggested following last May’s conflict between Israel and Hamas: “However complex and difficult the roots of this conflict, there is only one way to bring it to an end, which is through a two-state solution.”