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Israel targeted Palestinian Islamic Jihad due to its closeness to Iran

Smoke and flames rise around the area as a result of Israeli airstrikes over Rafah, located in the southern Gaza, on August 07, 2022. [Abed Rahim Khatib - Anadolu Agency]

It is common knowledge that the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) resistance movement maintains the strongest links with Iran and is ideologically closer to the Islamic Republic compared with the Gaza-based Hamas, although both receive funding and arms from Tehran. Of the two, the PIJ is also the more militant and, unlike Hamas, has opted not to participate in the political process. Instead, it is committed totally to the armed struggle against Israel's military occupation through which it aims to see the establishment of an independent state of Palestine.

The PIJ insists on acting independently of the ruling Hamas movement in Gaza, and carries out attacks against Israel without formal approval from either Hamas or the joint operations room. This has led to clashes in the besieged territory, or the Gaza authorities moving to prevent the PIJ from launching operations to avoid escalations with Israel, which always affect Palestinian civilians disproportionately.

It goes without saying that, no matter what reason, interests or motive it has, Iran is the primary patron of Palestinian national liberation in contemporary times where it matters most: the armed struggle. Officials in both Hamas and the PIJ acknowledged Tehran's support after last year's "Sword of Jerusalem" operation, described in an Al Jazeera interview earlier this year by the Hamas political bureau head Ismail Haniyeh as, "A rehearsal for the liberation of the Palestinian territories from the occupation."

Haniyeh also noted that Iran was by far the movement's largest donor, having sent $70 million to Hamas to help develop its arsenal. The Hamas political chief's tenure has witnessed the movement's reconciliation with Iran after falling out over differences on the Syrian civil war and, more recently, its decision to normalise ties with the Syrian government. Notwithstanding previous disagreements with Iran over the war in Yemen, the PIJ still maintains its headquarters in Damascus, signifying its closeness to the Islamic Republic and its pivotal and legitimising role in the Axis of Resistance.

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Israel recognises the mutually beneficial relationship between the PIJ and Iran and knows that it can confront Iran's involvement in Palestine by targeting the movement, as risky as this endeavour may be. One of the biggest security concerns for the apartheid state is the proliferation of Iranian arms and military technology among resistance factions in the occupied West Bank, including the PIJ, which has a strong presence there, particularly in Jenin, Tulkarem and Hebron. In both contexts, it is hoped by the Israelis that targeting the PIJ will help to disrupt Iran's influence in Palestine while also keeping the West Bank free of game-changing weapons.

Israeli forces arrested a senior PIJ figure in the West Bank a week ago. It was the detention and beating of Bassam Al-Saadi which prompted the resistance movement to consider punitive measures as it called for Saadi's release, along with Khalil Al-Awawdeh who is on a lengthy hunger strike in protest at being held by Israel with neither charge nor trial.

On Friday, Israel used this "threat" as the opportunity to target a senior PIJ commander in Gaza, Tayseer Al-Jabaari, under the pretext that he was planning an imminent attack against the occupation state. The widely condemned military aggression against the densely populated Gaza Strip resulted in the killing of several other PIJ figures as well as civilians, including children and women.

While Israel was carrying out its "flagrant act of aggression" — as the UN Special Rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territory described it — the Secretary-General of the PIJ, Ziyad Al-Nakhalah, was in Tehran where he met with senior Iranian officials. The latter included President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the Supreme Leader's top adviser Ali Akbar Velayati and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander, Major General Hossein Salami, who warned that Israel "will pay another heavy price for the recent crime".

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President Raisi said that the defence and support of Palestine and the resistance is the definitive policy of Iran. Nakhalah thanked the Iranians for this. "Today, the Palestinian resistance has a strong presence in Gaza and a prominent presence in the West Bank, which in the future will lead to increased pressure on the Zionist regime and changes in the equations in Palestine, and these achievements have been achieved thanks to the support of the Islamic Republic of Iran."

In response to Israel's aggression in Gaza, the PIJ leader vowed revenge for the attacks, including the targeting of Tel Aviv. There had already been rocket attacks by the PIJ in retaliation for Israeli missiles but, intriguingly, Nakhalah was arguably directing the PIJ from Tehran, an unprecedented development during the heat of conflict in occupied Palestine.

During its onslaught against Gaza, Israel was careful to target PIJ figures and facilities, and not Hamas or any other faction. It clearly didn't want to widen the scope of the conflict, but it also obviously feels vulnerable about Iran's continued support for the most revolutionary and ideologically-driven Palestinian resistance organisation.

Nakhalah has called for a united front, which was well received in neighbouring Lebanon where Hezbollah has threatened to intervene. However, Hamas has thus far avoided becoming involved, perhaps due to its more pragmatic or administrative concerns, or it may not have recovered fully from last May.

An uneasy ceasefire agreement brokered by Egypt is now holding in Gaza, which reportedly includes the release of Saadi and Awawdeh as a condition, although it is uncertain if either will actually materialise. Singling out the PIJ serves Israel's interests by indirectly confronting Iran inside occupied Palestine, but it is a risky strategy which could trigger united action by the factions and a multi-front conflict if Hezbollah decides to get involved.

BOOK REVIEW: A History of Palestinian Islamic Jihad: Faith, Awareness, and Revolution in the Middle East

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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