The latest flare-up between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) has again illustrated the dramatic change in the frontline militias facing Israel. PIJ and Hamas have become full-fledged Iranian proxies, receiving Iranian funding, training, sophisticated equipment, and, most importantly, Tehran’s instructions on their confrontation with Israel.
The metamorphosis from guerrilla-terrorist militias to armies did not happen overnight. It results from a long process initiated by Tehran with the active assistance of Hizbullah in Lebanon. The events in the last month have shown the ongoing coordination and consultation among the top leaders of Hamas, Hizbullah, and PIJ in Beirut, Damascus, and Tehran. The aim is precise: creating a united front facing Israel from Iran-supported Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). If possible, the alliance would incite Israeli Arabs to join the confrontation effort against Israel if one of its allied members was under Israeli attack.
In the absence of a strong Palestinian Authority able to impose law and order in the territories, Hamas and PIJ have succeeded in linking events in Judea, Samaria, and east Jerusalem in such a way that they have established themselves as a principal party in the dispute, if and when Israel “violates” the status quo on the Temple Mount or “infringes” on the sanctity of Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The relations between Iran and the two most prominent terrorist organizations, Hamas and PIJ, began in 1987 when Israel exiled Fathi Shkaki, the founder and Secretary-General of the PIJ movement, to Lebanon. Once there, the intelligence arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps established contact with him and immediately began to train and equip Islamic Jihad.
Over the years, PIJ and Hamas received money to build a solid power base able to sustain attacks from Israel. Iranian assistance to PIJ is estimated at $60 million yearly, which grew from an initial $2-3 million at the beginning of their relationship. In addition, PIJ sent trainees to Lebanon, Syria, and Iran, where they trained on the production of sophisticated weaponry, since the smuggling of weapons through the Sinai was getting more difficult when the Egyptian army created a buffer zone with Gaza and destroyed almost all the smuggling tunnels between Sinai and Gaza.
Iran has succeeded in duplicating a militia that, in time of need, carries out the instructions given by Iran through the Quds Force, part and parcel of the IRGC. However, unlike other militias, PIJ refused to participate in the Syrian civil war, claiming that its raison d’etre is to combat Israel. All decisions relating to military confrontation with Israel must be “greenlighted” by Tehran. The latest example was during the Egyptian effort to broker a cease-fire between Israel and PIJ. Ziyad Nakhalah, the leader of PIJ, consulted the Iranian foreign minister in a phone conversation before accepting the cease-fire solution proposed by Egypt.
Analyzing the PIJ missile effort, one can conclude that the military action resulted from Iranian tactics. The latest PIJ tactics reflect a different type of behavior, unusual to the conduct of retaliation by Palestinian factions. Moreover, the release of information by the Israel Security Agency relating to an effort by PIJ to produce rockets in Samaria (where PIJ is strongest) shows that the Iranian concept of encircling Israel with fire, as presented by the late Gen. Qassem Soleimani, is taking place.
If, in the past, PIJ used rudimentary missiles against Israeli targets, a time will come when it will have precision-guided missiles that could hit sensitive targets in Israel. The recent confrontation has also seen the use of anti-aircraft missiles (first-generation) and the beginning of drone attacks, an area where the Iranians excel.
In addition, PIJ and Hamas have tried different tactics to neutralize the efficiency of the Iron Dome missile defense system. They and their sponsor understand that the Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and other counter-missile systems prevent them from hitting Israel and causing damage, panic, and havoc on its home front. Such a development would heighten the risk of casualties on the Israeli side and perhaps push Israel to adopt other military tactics in combatting the Palestinian factions.
One thing is clear: coordination and consultations between the two leading Palestinian military organizations with Iran – and Hizbullah in Lebanon – will create a new front facing Israel. Israel will have to expect “novelties” introduced by Iran into the battlefield (deeper cross-border attack tunnels, mini-submarines, torpedoes, and shoulder-fired, second and third-generation, anti-aircraft missiles). It is one thing to face the Palestinian militias; it is definitely another when Israel will have to deal with Iranian-inspired tactics and sophisticated Iranian weapons, a situation which is unfolding today with the tightening grip of Iran on the Palestinian factions in Gaza.