Israel announced the start of a Gaza-based military operation yesterday, commencing with multiple airstrikes targeting members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terror group. A top Palestinian militant leader was killed in the wave of air strikes taking place over at least six hours.
Israel claims its current operation is preemptive, as the PIJ has been threatening for days to attack the Jewish state in retaliation for the arrest of its West Bank leader. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) deployed the country’s missile air defense Iron Dome system, in addition to implementing restrictions in locations close to the southern border. The PIJ has overtly threatened Israel following today’s airstrikes, indicating a potential flare up in conflict is imminent.
Building Up to Conflict
In late July, Israeli forces detained a senior PIJ official in a West Bank overnight raid. According to The Shin Bet, Israel’s Security Agency, Saadi was working hard “to restore the Islamic Jihad’s operations, in which he was instrumental in establishing a strong military force in Samaria in general and in Jenin in particular. His presence was a significant factor in radicalizing the organization’s operatives.” Saadi was held in Jenin as part of a series of detainments related to the wave of terror attacks that left 17 Israelis dead in recent months.
Extremist Groups Played a Role
The PIJ is a radical Islamic extremist organization that was initially formed in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The group has maintained its position as the second most powerful entity in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas.
The spin-off of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas seized control over Gaza in 2006 and continues to hold a tight grip over the region. Like Hamas, the PIJ’s top priority is the violent destruction of the State of Israel. Both Hamas and the PIJ have carried out countless acts of terror targeting Jewish and Israeli civilians since the late-1980s. While Saadi is a PIJ official, Hamas leaders have also indicated it is ready to attack Israel in response to the Jenin raids. “The occupation has crossed the red line and the time has come for us to teach it a lesson,” Hamas spokesman in Gaza Hazem Qassem said in a statement.
Both Hamas and the PIJ have publicly identified Taysir al-Jabari, the commander of PIJS’s Al Quds Brigades in Gaza City, as the senior official killed in today’s attacks. The Israeli government has tried to specify that its ongoing Operation Break the Wave is targeting the PIJ, in an attempt to leave Hamas out of the conflict. According to The Times of Israel, Jabari was involved in a “concrete threat” to fire anti-tank missiles in order to kill Israeli civilians and IDF soldiers along its Gaza border. In addition to targeting Jabari, Israeli “attacked the manned positions of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, including rocket launch positions, some of which were recently used.”
Following the air strikes that took out Jabari, the PIJ threatened to target Tel Aviv, Israel’s populous capital city, with missile barrages. PIJ leader Ziad al-Nakhalah asserted that “We are heading to battle, and there is no truce after this airstrike. The results of this war will be in favor of the Palestinian people. The enemy should expect a battle, not a truce.” Industry experts and military officials are concerned this latest flare-up in conflict between Israel and Gaza-based terror groups will lead to a full-scale war. Last May, an outbreak of violence between the Jewish State, Hamas and the PIJ culminated in a massive escalation. Over the span of weeks, thousands of rockets attacks and air strikes resulted in destruction and deaths on both sides. As Operation Break the Wave continues, the potential for retaliatory violence will grow.
Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.