An edited version of this article appeared in the Daily Telegraph – 17 August 2022
Earlier this month, when Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) leader Ziyad al-Nakhala was touring Iran to meet his well-wishers, including Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Hossein Salami , Israel conducted a major operation, dubbed ‘Breaking Dawn’, against the group closer to home.
After the arrest of Bassam al-Saadi, a key PIJ leader in the West Bank, Jerusalem received information about a major PIJ terror operation being prepared in Gaza. It acted pre-emptively and assassinated a senior military leader in Gaza, Tayseer Jabari, who oversaw the attack plans. After the PIJ fired some 1,100 rockets at Israeli cities in response, some 200 of which hit Gaza and caused significant Palestinian casualties, Israel hit other key PIJ leaders, workshops and arms stores. When a ceasefire was reached Sunday night under Egyptian auspices, Israel claimed to have wiped out all of the PIJ’s senior military leadership.
PIJ is effectively an organ of Iran’s IRGC, which split from the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s in favor of the pan-Islamic ideology of then Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it carried out a series of horrific terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians and made no apology for its goal of destroying Israel, leading to its being classified as a terrorist organization by much of the western world, including Australia and New Zealand was classified.
While those unfamiliar with the region will raise questions about how Shia Iran could possibly be allied with Sunni terrorists like the PIJ or Hamas, the simple fact is that since Khomeini came to power in 1979, Iran has aligned itself with Sunni and even allied to non-Islamic groups. These include al-Qaeda and various other Sunni jihadists around the world, as well as Palestinian terror groups from across the political and religious spectrum.
Since 1979, the Iranian regime has been hellbent on exporting its Islamic revolution with the aim of driving out the US presence in the Middle East; destabilizing and ultimately conquering or co-opting America’s Arab partners and customers in the Gulf; and above all the destruction of Israel.
The PIJ was a key element of this strategy, one of several external manifestations of the IRGC that intended to surround Israel on all sides with missile arsenals and other weapons from Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, as well as the Palestinian territories themselves.
The purpose of this strategy is to shift the battlefield away from Iran and closer to Israel, while attempting to asymmetrically challenge Israel’s apparent military superiority and, in particular, to overwhelm its advanced missile defenses. The regime’s nuclear weapons program is likely to be a key element of this strategy, allowing Iran to wage a long war of attrition against Israel without worrying about retaliation on its own territory.
As PIJ official Ramez al-Halabi explained last year, “The mujahideen in Gaza and Lebanon are using Iranian weapons to attack the Zionists. We buy our weapons with Iranian money. An important part of what we do is under the supervision of Iranian experts.” Not only has the IRGC directly trained, funded and armed PIJ operatives for decades, but it has also established local manufacturing facilities in Gaza, allowing the group, as well as Hamas, to produce cheap, dated Manufacture IRGC designed missiles on site. It was estimated that prior to Breaking Dawn, PIJ had between 6000 and 8000 missiles of various types.
While the prospect of a multi-front IRGC war against Israel, with thousands of rockets and missiles flying from all directions, is Jerusalem’s ultimate strategic nightmare, Israel has once again shown that nightmare is far from reality. In both the West Bank and Gaza, Israel has largely contained the PIJ, conducting brief operations from time to time to assassinate or arrest senior officials.
Notably, Hamas did not take part in the fighting in either Breaking Dawn or its 2019 iteration Black Belt. If not even the PIJ’s sister organization based there, which is also committed to Iran, joins the fight, then nobody else will either.
Thanks to active missile defenses, such as the Iron Dome, which reportedly shot down about 97% of missiles headed for Israeli populated areas, and passive defenses, such as early warning signals and air raid shelters, Israel was able to cushion the PIJ’s intense retaliation without loss of life.
Iran may be seeking ways to launch a multifront war, but it is clear that Israel has figured out how to nullify the effectiveness of the Gaza Front, even as its “war between wars” destroy IRGC presence in Syria and the controls Lebanon.
Thanks to the Abraham Accords, should Israel be attacked, it would easily be able to attack the Houthis in Yemen, either alongside or through the territory or airspace of the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Israel has also demonstrated the ability to attack Iraq and even Iran itself if it sees the need to.
Iran wanted to ring Israel with proxies and rocket arsenals, but it’s unclear who is actually surrounding whom. As multiple Israeli sabotage and assassination operations in Iran have shown, Tehran’s aggressive plans simply aren’t working.