Israelis and Palestinians have already paid a high price for the mounting tensions between Iran and the United States.
According to The Times this week, “a key meeting” was recently held in Beirut between Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Al-Quds Brigade, and Ziyad al-Nakhalah, leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The apparent result: last weekend’s barrage of rocket attacks from Gaza and an upsurge in violence – the worst since the bloody summer of 2014 – in which four Israelis and 27 Palestinians (including 16 identified as terrorist operatives) lost their lives.
As The Times’ Middle East correspondent, Richard Spencer, suggested: “The swift rise of PIJ gives a glimpse into Iranian strategy … What last week’s confrontation showed is that Iran has little intention of hitting back against American targets directly: that would be suicidal. It can provoke Israel into such extreme measures against its neighbours that western support for the ‘Zionist entity’ is undermined.”
While less well-known than fellow Iranian-backed terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, PIJ could – on Tehran’s orders – play an increasingly dangerous and destabilising role in the Gazan pressure cooker.
The group is believed to have been intent on provoking a confrontation with Israel for at least the past month. In recent weeks, according to the IDF, PIJ speeded-up work on a cross-border tunnel, designed to carry out a terror attack, which it had been constructing from the Rafah area of southern Gaza into Israel. On 29 April, it launched a rocket which exploded in the Mediterranean Sea near a southern Israeli city. And on 3 May, it used the cover of a Hamas-organised border riot to open fire across the border on the IDF. An Israeli officer and a female soldier were wounded in the sniper attack.
As PIJ had calculated it would, Israel then responded by striking an armed Hamas position nearby, killing three of the terror group’s members. PIJ then begun firing rockets and mortars at Israeli civilian targets – with Hamas soon joining in the apparently coordinated effort to overwhelm the Iron Dome defence system.
PIJ’s strategy was designed to scupper the Egyptian-brokered attempt to negotiate a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and to provide the beleaguered enclave with much-needed economic and humanitarian relief. (Egypt, like Israel, maintains tight restrictions on the movement of goods and people into and out of Gaza due to the threat of terrorism). Israel has repeatedly indicated a willingness to assist such efforts in return for a halt to rocket attacks.
Seemingly acting at Iran’s behest, PIJ is also working in the Islamic Republic’s interests, rather than those of the Palestinian people it claims to represent.
As The Times suggested, Iran views attacks on Israel as an indirect way of punishing the United States for the Trump administration’s tightening of sanctions on Tehran.
But Iran also has a more direct purpose: to increase its room for manoeuvre in Syria, where it has long been working to establish a permanent military presence, as well as to burnish Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal. Israel has launched airstrikes on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, aimed at preserving its red lines, which include preventing Tehran from digging-in militarily over the long-term and stopping it transferring to Hezbollah game-changing missile technology.
Established in 1979, PIJ is, after Hamas, the second largest terror group in Gaza. Its founders were inspired by the Iranian revolution and their goal was to establish an Islamic state on the entire territory that constituted Mandate Palestine (that is, modern day Israel, Gaza and the West Bank). Forty years on, the group remains committed to that goal, believing that Israel’s very presence is an affront to Islam and its conquest is a holy task. According to its manifesto, it rejects “any peaceful solution to the Palestinian cause” and calls “the Jihad solution and the martyrdom style … the only choice for liberation”.
PIJ thus rejects a two-state solution, is dedicated solely to violent jihad and refuses any negotiations with Israel. PIJ began recruiting suicide bombers in the early 1990s and has carried out numerous attacks. Together with the hundreds of rockets it has fired at Israel from Gaza, it is responsible for the deaths of dozens of Israeli civilians and soldiers.
Hamas, while having a similar goal of destroying Israel and establishing an Islamic Palestinian state, has been willing to enter into indirect negotiations with Israel. Unlike Hamas, PIJ also does not participate in the political process or provide social services. The relationship between Hamas and PIJ is complex: they are sometime rivals but also frequent co-conspirators – they share similar goals, have the same principal backer in Iran, and both have participated in the large-scale rocket attacks of the past year – for instance, in November and last weekend – which are the greatest onslaught faced by Israel since the 2014 Gaza war.
Iran has been a generous financial patron to PIJ throughout most of its history. As of August 2018, Iran provided $30m annually to PIJ (it gives $70m to Hamas and an average $1bn to Hezbollah), as well as training and weapons. PIJ has previously taken part in joint operations with Hezbollah. While its membership is Gaza-based, the group’s leadership is principally based in Syria, although some remain in Lebanon (from where they were expelled by Israel in the late 1980s).
PIJ will regard last weekend’s violence as something of a success. As one Israeli commentator suggested: “Now that the smoke has cleared, it appears that this small organisation has emerged as the most substantial player both in Gaza in particular and in the Arab sphere in general. Egyptian negotiators are now obliged to accept Islamic Jihad as an equal partner … Despite the heavy price that Islamic Jihad payed in the course of the fighting, and in the resulting ceasefire agreement, from a long-term perspective, it has had an upgrade.”
Pictured: PIJ leaders meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.