The ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) has taken effect in the Gaza Strip after days of cross-border fighting triggered by surprise Israeli airstrikes. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said its aerial bombardment was a pre-emptive action aimed at preventing rocket attacks planned by PIJ against Israeli targets. In retaliation to airstrikes, Islamic Jihad militants fired more than 1,000 rockets at Israel, forcing residents of southern areas and major cities including Tel Aviv fleeing to bomb shelters. Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a televised statement that the entire senior military command of Islamic Jihad in Gaza was successfully eliminated and all our goals were achieved. PIJ is a relatively smaller armed group compared to Hamas which rules Gaza. But still PIJ is proving to be the most prominent threat emerging from Gaza to Israelis. Last year, also in conflict with Israel, PIJ emerged as a dark horse. Despite losing top operatives as well as military infrastructure, the PIJ managed to keep firing a large barrage of rockets until a ceasefire came into effect. This time also Islamic Jihad kept on firing rockets despite overwhelming Israeli air strikes.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad was founded in 1981 as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite being operational for more than four decades, the PIJ remains one of the most important yet least understood Palestinian armed factions historically and ideologically. The group has emerged as the second-largest armed movement in the Gaza Strip. The group has a reputation for being small and highly secretive, which makes it less prone to infiltration by Israeli intelligence services. Islamic Jihad consists of a leadership council and a military wing, called the al-Quds Brigades. But unlike other militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, which maintain extensive political and social apparatuses alongside their military wings. PIJ focuses exclusively on military activity and wishes to be seen as an elite vanguard rather than a broad community-based movement. Also, the outfit is opposed to any political engagement with Israel.
Hamas, which gained full control of the Gaza strip in 2007 from Fatah is often limited in its ability to act militarily against Israel. Because it bears responsibility for running the day-to-day affairs of Gaza. The coastal enclave is often in the news because of its Humanitarian hardships. Islamic Jihad has no such limitations and has emerged as the more militant and radical faction, often undermining Hamas authority. Islamic Jihad has become the driving force in rocket-fire confrontations with Israel. Indeed, it is known to unilaterally pick fights with Tel Aviv without taking any other resistance group into confidence. In recent times, the PIJ has tried to outflank Hamas by presenting itself as a more radical opponent of Israel.
In fact, according to Israeli media reports, the group is already winning in the firepower stakes. Meaning that while Hamas is believed to have far more long-range and precise rockets than the PIJ — the latter is in possession of some 8,000 short-range rockets including some anti-tank missiles. Incidentally, most of its weapons are now locally produced in Gaza, and in recent years it has developed an arsenal to rival that of Hamas, including some longer-range rockets capable of striking Tel Aviv.
PIJ's strategy to confront Israel is simple: it tries to overwhelm the Israeli state-of-the-art Iron Dome missile defence system by the sheer volume of simultaneously fired projectiles. Many of its rockets are so cheap and easy to manufacture, in some cases requiring little more than a metal casing and an explosive, that the PIJ has managed to accumulate them in significant numbers. So, even if Israel successfully stops all outward weapons supplies coming into Gaza — the PIJ’s homegrown capabilities will allow it to bombard Israel with rocket fire for weeks, if not months. Palestinian Islamic Jihad has moved towards entirely indigenous production, often manufacturing both the weapons and explosives out of raw materials readily available in the Gaza Strip.
The Islamic Jihad leadership firmly believes that it has nothing to lose and everything to gain by escalating tensions with Israel. As it will be seen as leading resistance from the Palestinians against the Zionist state. The Gaza Strip is currently suffering from an acute economic crisis. The cost of living is high and unemployment is spiralling. So Hamas rightly believes, at least for now, that calm is required to allow the people of Gaza some breathing space. Hamas at this point in time wants to strengthen its regime by improving the living conditions for the Gazans. And then slowly increase its influence to the West bank by showcasing themselves as efficient administrators. But if Hamas tries to stop and curtain Islamic Jihad at this stage, before the region gets hotter still, it will be accused of collaborating with Israel. This leaves the leaders of Hamas caught between a rock and a hard place. But if it let Islamic Jihad to carry on wild with its operations against Israel, that will likely lead to a harsh Israeli response. Nevertheless, Hamas will soon have to make tough choices if it does not wish to be ousted from the Gaza driving seat. And this means taking effective measures to prevent the PIJ’s independence and curbing self-serving activities.
(Manish Rai is a columnist for the Middle East and Afghanistan-Pakistan region and Editor of the geo-political news agency ViewsAround)