Iran’s Al-Alamtv Arabic channel, which broadcasts to an Arab target audience in the Middle East, reported in its headlines on the killing of Baha Abu al-Ata, who was a member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) Military Council of the Jerusalem Brigades, and commander of the northern region of the Gaza Strip. Al-Alam also reported on the simultaneous assassination attempt on Akram al-Ajouri, a member of the PIJ’s Political Bureau in Damascus (al-Ajouri was slightly wounded).
Al-Alam also reported on the retaliatory rocket barrages against Israel by the Popular Resistance Committees after al-Ata’s killing, and quotes from the PIJ’s announcement that “a devastating response to the Zionist enemy is on the way.”1
After the death of Abu al-Ata, Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Mousavi condemned the Israeli attack as “crimes against humanity,” according to the official IRNA news agency on November 12, 2019. Mousavi insisted on the “need to legally pursue and punish the occupiers of Palestine in the international courts on crimes against humanity.”
The PIJ is the Palestinian organization closest to Iran and is heavily dependent on the financial and military aid that Tehran provides. The relationship between the PIJ and Iran is conducted mainly through the headquarters of the organization’s external leadership in Damascus, which holds contacts with the Gazan leadership. Unlike Hamas, which retains political and operational independence, the PIJ is more attentive to Iran’s agenda and to the directives that come from Tehran. The group declared a state of emergency in the wake of al-Ata’s killing.
In recent years, Tehran has supplied the PIJ with rockets, sniper rifles (Iranian-made AM-50 Sayyad-Hunter based on HS.50 rifles that the Austrian Steyr-Mannlicher company sold to the National Iranian Police) , and anti-tank missiles, all the while continuing to train its operatives in Syria and Iran in manufacturing and operating rockets, missiles small arms, and explosive devices (IEDs, EFPs).
The PIJ is a critical part of the Iranian strategy of wearing down Israel and at the same time, keeping threats away from the Iranian border. Thus, Iran sees the PIJ as part of its first line of defense strategy. Elsewhere in the Middle East, Iran is working similarly with Hizbullah in Lebanon and Syria, the Popular Mobilization Force in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen to promote its influence and interests against Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.
The current round of escalation, which now involves Israel and the PIJ in Gaza, again reveals the tight ties between Iran and the PIJ, which consist an important component in the “resistance front.” It also highlights the uniqueness of PIJ from the other organizations in Gaza, which are less dependent on Iran.
Iran, which still has not paid a price for its unprecedented attack on the oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, can draw encouragement from this round of fighting in which the PIJ is conducting on its own fighting without Hamas support. It demonstrates to the Sunni Arab world, which is caught up in internal fights for survival, that Iran and its key proxies are continuing their uncompromising struggle against Israel, despite the price paid from time to time. Iran also has an interest in countering Egyptian attempts to calm the streets in Gaza, in which Baha Abu al-Ata was also involved. The joining of the fray by Hamas will further weaken Egypt’s role as it strives to restore calm and get Hamas to restrain the PIJ.
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