Palestinian Islamic Jihad started a fire in Gaza

May 5, 2019 by Yaakov Lappin
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The Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terror organization – the second largest armed faction in Gaza – is responsible for the latest escalation in Gaza and Israel.

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

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 to sabotage 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.

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.

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.

The PIJ’s actions could be linked to Iranian orders to keep the Gazan arena ablaze with conflict.

Egypt has been working hard to implement steps to push Gaza away from the brink – efforts that the PIJ, Iran’s direct proxy, has appeared to torpedo at this time.

Iran, for its part, is under growing economic distress and is battling widening American sanctions against it. The Islamic Republic has a network of proxy groups mobilized around the Middle East, which it can activate at will when it wishes to retaliate in response to developments.  Such developments could include the recent U.S. designation of the Iranian Republican Guards Corps as a terror entity.

Iran could also be seeking revenge for events in Syria. One air strike, 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.

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

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, and as it pretends to cooperate with Hamas.

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

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 Jerusalem 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 is a wave of heavy rocket and mortar fire on Israeli civilians, launched by both PIJ and Hamas. Hamas abandoned its more ‘cautious’ approach and flowed with 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 terror cells launch projectiles from densely populated urban areas in Gaza, Israel’s Iron Dome air defence batteries have stood guard, intercepting most of the threats heading for populated areas. Conricus described the interception rate as “good.”

Some five to six Gazan terrorists have been killed in Israel’s air strikes thus far. Israel targeted dozens of PIJ and Hamas sites – a combination of weapons production facilities and military posts.

Yaakov Lappin/JNS

Israel is expected to broaden its air campaign in the coming hours.  The Israeli 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 last 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 reign in PIJ, and to commit to keeping it in check, before any further steps are considered to move towards a more stable calm.

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

All of Israel’s border crossings with Gaza have been sealed shut, and the maritime fishing zone is closed.

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

Alluding to where the escalation may lead if no ceasefire is reached, he added, “If needed, we will have the ability to mobilize ground forces.”

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