Analysis: Palestinian Islamic Jihad attacks Israel, prompting counter-strikes

Iron Dome intercepts rockets from Gaza > IDF, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The start of May has seen a significant escalation in tensions and violence in Israel and Gaza, following on from a spate of terror attacks and counter-terror operations in recent months.

What happened

  • More than 350 rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza in recent days, some of which were launched at major urban centres like Tel Aviv.
  • Yesterday, Israel killed three senior members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in a series of retaliatory airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, including Khalil Bahtini, commander in northern Gaza, Jihad Shanem, a PIJ military council official, and Tareq Izz ed-Din, who directed PIJ activity in the West Bank.
  • Despite political division within Israel, these strikes have received support from across the Israeli political spectrum, including from Leader of the Opposition Yair Lapid and former defence minister Benny Gantz, both of whom have been at the forefront of mass protests against the government’s proposed judicial reforms.
  • Wednesday has seen further volleys of rocket fire from Gaza into southern and central Israel, prompting sirens to sound in the centrali Israel cities of Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan for the first time in this round of violence.
  • Indeed, thousands of residents of Israeli towns near Gaza have been evacuated as of yesterday in anticipation of further barrages.
  • Flights were also paused from landing at Ben Gurion airport on Wednesday afternoon in response to the attacks against Tel Aviv.
  • Israel has responded with strike against PIJ targets in Gaza, including a vehicle en route to a rocket launch site and other rocket launching infrastructure. Palestinian media reported that one person was killed in the first strike on Wednesday.
  • The latest round of rocket fire began in apparent response to the death of Khader Adnan, a Palestinian hunger striker and prominent political leader of PIJ, who died in Israeli custody last week.

Last month
The past month has seen a sharp increase in indiscriminate rocket fire from the Gaza Strip towards Israeli towns and cities. Early April saw more than 50 rockets fired by Palestinian militants, triggering alert systems in Israeli border communities like Ranen, Patish, Dorot and Havat Shikmim, where residents have routinely taken cover in bomb shelters. No group immediately claimed responsibility, though Israel holds Hamas – the terror group that has governed Gaza since 2007 – responsible for rocket fire from the Strip. Last month, Israel launched strikes against Hamas sites in the Gaza Strip, as is its longstanding policy in response to rocket fire from Gaza. The sites targeted include three tunnels operated by Hamas, six weapons production sites, an anti-aircraft missile launcher, and a series of observation posts.

Terrorist attacks
The first five months of the year have also seen a number of Palestinian terror attacks against Israelis, with seven fatal attacks – killing eighteen civilians, including children as young as 6 – so far this year. Easter weekend was particularly deadly, witnessing two fatal terror attacks killing four civilians on Good Friday, including the deaths of three members of the British-Israeli Dee family. The IDF launched a manhunt for the gunmen and other suspects who fled the scene, ultimately tracking them down and killing them on 4 May in an exchange of fire after surrounding their hideout in Nablus.

Rockets from Lebanon

  • Among the most significant escalations this year were 34 rockets fired into northern Israel from Lebanon on 6 April.
  • With 3 people injured and several building damaged, this represented the largest attack from Lebanon since the 2006 war, during which thousands of rockets were launched at Israel from Lebanon. In August 2021, Hezbollah fired 19 rockets at northern Israel.
  • A further two rockets were launched later in the evening towards the northern town of Metula, while 7 April also saw a small drone cross the border from Lebanon into Israel, which was shot down by the IDF.
  • There was no immediate claim of responsibility, with Hezbollah – the Iranian-backed Shiite terror group which holds significant political influence in Lebanon – blaming Palestinian terror groups based in southern Israel. However, it is unlikely that rocket fire from Lebanon would be possible without tacit approval from Hezbollah.
  • Another six rockets were launched overnight on 8 and 9 April from southern Syria into the Golan Heights, for which a local Palestinian militia, the Jerusalem Brigade (Liwa al-Quds), claimed responsibility.
  • In response to the rockets from southern Lebanon, Israel conducted strikes against “terrorist infrastructure belonging to Hamas” in the south of Lebanon. Hamas has a strong presence in the region, especially in Palestinian refugee camps near the Israeli border. The Lebanese military uncovered more rockets aimed at Israel on 8 April.
  • An IDF statement stated that Israel “will not allow the Hamas terrorist organisation to operate from within Lebanon” and asserted that Israel would “hold the state of Lebanon responsible for ever directed fire emanating from its territory”.
  • 9 April saw a meeting between Hezbollah chef Hassan Nasrallah and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Beirut, in a clear indication of the two terror groups’ close relationship. The meeting, in which Hamas and Hezbollah reportedly discussed future cooperation, was attended by Saleh al-Arouri, a founding commander of Hamas’s military wing, who is thought to be responsible for the rocket fire from Lebanon.

Efforts at restraint
Amid the rising stakes, efforts have been made to limit the scale of the ongoing conflict. In particular, the Islamist terrorist group Hamas – which governs Gaza and under whose tacit support rocket fire generally takes place under – has seemingly not yet entered the exchanges that have taken place in May, despite vowing a “unified response” to Israel’s actions. Israeli officials have been at pains to emphasise that the ongoing operation – now dubbed Operation Shield and Arrow – was solely targeting PIJ’s terror infrastructure, but would expand to include Hamas should the group attack Israel. In previous years, the absence of direct Hamas involvement has kept previous conflicts to a limited scope, lasting a matter of days rather than weeks.

What happens next
Israel is bracing for further rocket fire today and in the coming days and, as per its longstanding policy, is likely to respond by further targeting terrorist infrastructure. Whether the exchanges escalate into a more severe, long-term conflict will depend on what Hamas does next.