Radical PIJ Is Moving In
Recent clashes between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) have underscored Iran’s growing influence in the Gaza Strip. PIJ, a Sunni Muslim jihadist movement that seeks to annihilate Israel and replace it with a Palestinian Islamic state, receives funding, weapons, and training from Iran.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Iran funnels “tens of millions of dollars per year” to PIJ. “Their leadership visits Iran and meets Iranian leaders frequently,” he said. Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid called PIJ “an Iranian proxy that wants to destroy the state of Israel.”
Acting on intelligence reports that PIJ was planning attacks on Israeli civilians, the IDF commenced Operation Breaking Dawn and assassinated several senior PIJ leaders in Gaza. Israel also arrested 19 PIJ members in the West Bank (biblical Judea and Samaria). Analysts say Israel’s success is temporary, and worse clashes are certain.
PIJ is smaller than Hamas, which governs Gaza, but it is better organized. “It is not about the size; it is about power, efficiency, and the ability to engage militarily in a confrontation with Israel,” said Ibrahim Fraihat, a professor at the Qatar-based Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. “And for that reason, Israel is trying to arrest its leaders in the West Bank and to contain any action that Islamic Jihad might escalate.”
Like Hamas, PIJ is a terrorist organization. Though based in Gaza, it also has a presence in Lebanon and Syria. PIJ leader Ziad al-Nakhalah recently met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran while PIJ militants fired more than 1,000 missiles into Israel. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei later told al-Nakhalah that PIJ proved the Palestinians could “crush the enemy.”
Some analysts say Iran is using PIJ, with its 8,000 or so fighters, to coerce U.S. President Biden’s administration into reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. They say the Iranian mullahs are sending a message that Iran and its proxies will continue to attack Israel and kill Jews unless Biden gives them what they want.
Others warn that PIJ, filling the vacuum created by the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, is expanding its presence in the West Bank. Middle East analyst Daniel Ben-Ami warned that its ascendancy shows Islamism has replaced Palestinian nationalism as the driving force in Palestinian politics. Consequently, Israel is determined to weaken the PIJ leadership.
“Until about 2006,” wrote Ben-Ami, “when Hamas won elections in Gaza, Palestinian nationalism was widely seen as the main political force among the Palestinians. Since then, there has been a deep schism, with Hamas taking over Gaza and the old nationalists still controlling the West Bank. Now the tide seems to be turning towards Islamism in the West Bank, too.” He concluded, “This will have profound effects on the conflict to come.”
Others are more optimistic. Middle East expert Hadeel Oueis noted that young Arabs increasingly reject the actions of PIJ and Hamas against Israel. “After the Abraham Accords agreements and other steps taken by the Arab countries, like the recent formal opening of Saudi skies to Israel, more young Arabs are condemning the Islamic Jihad and Hamas usage of Gaza to start a new war with Israel.”
She concluded, “The fact that the countries controlled by Iran have daily suffering regarding their basic needs while the Arab countries that signed the Abraham Accords enjoy a better quality of life is an eye-opener for the Arab youth. People in the region are questioning the old assumptions about the so-called resistance against Israel more than ever.”