Analysis: Can Islamic Jihad survive Israel’s assassination drive?

Israel has killed senior members of the Palestinian group’s military council, damaging its military capabilities.

Mourners attend the funeral of Islamic Jihad commander Ali Ghali and his brother Mahmoud who were killed in an Israeli strike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip
Mourners attend the funeral of Islamic Jihad commander Ali Ghali and his brother Mahmoud who were killed in an Israeli strike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 11, 2023 [File: Reuteres/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa]

It has been more than a month since the latest Israeli assault on Gaza. The ceasefire that was agreed has held so far, even as Israel has pumelled Jenin in the occupied West Bank. There have even been rumours of a longer truce that Egypt is trying to broker between Israel and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).

While they appear to not want to say so publicly, instead continuing to speak of ongoing resistance against Israel, it is clear that the Palestinian factions seek a bit of calm. The people of Gaza need a break from the incessant assaults Israel has launched on them since 2008, especially given the difficult socioeconomic situation they face in the blockaded territory.

The PIJ has suffered severely from the latest Israeli assault on Gaza. Six members of its top leadership were killed by Israeli air strikes. This came just nine months after another Israeli attack on Gaza assassinated three others.

As a result, the PIJ’s military council has been decimated, which has been a major setback for al-Quds Brigades, its armed wing. So will the movement be able to recover?

Israel’s assassinations drive

Over the past year, Israel has systematically targeted members of Islamic Jihad in Gaza. In August, the Israeli army started bombarding the Gaza Strip in what it said was a “pre-emptive” operation to stop a planned attack by the PIJ. As a result, three senior members were assassinated and 46 other Palestinians killed, including 17 children.

In May, the Israeli military attacked Gaza again, this time after tensions over an Israeli raid on Al-Aqsa Mosque. The bombardment killed six PIJ leaders and 30 other Palestinians, including six children.

Israel has focused on the PIJ because the group refuses to abide by any security agreements that the Israeli government has concluded with other Palestinian factions with the mediation of Egypt.

It has nothing to lose from continuing its armed resistance against Israel because it does not hold political power in Gaza – unlike Hamas – and it is not responsible for the wellbeing of its people.

There are various reasons why Israel was able to assassinate these PIJ members so easily. First, PIJ’s security measures have been lax and they have failed to properly protect their leadership by placing them in secured buildings.

Second, some of the assassinated members used open unencrypted communication tools, which allowed the Israeli intelligence to intercept them, according to the PIJ leader Ziyad al-Nakhalah.

Third, Israel was also so daring in its attack because it had rightly predicted that other groups would not join the PIJ in responding to the violence. The Israeli government made it clear through the five days of bombardment of Gaza that it was targeting Islamic Jihad only. It was hoping that Hamas would stay on the sidelines and it did.

Apart from some logistical support for PIJ, Hamas decided not to get involved in the escalation because it had not yet recovered from the 2021 war. Its leadership knew that any direct involvement would have meant more residential towers bombed, more closures of the crossings into Israel, more electricity shutdowns, and more suffering for the people of Gaza, which they can no longer bear.

It would have also meant Israeli bombardment targeting the movement at a time when it is trying to restore its capabilities from the last war in 2021.

The PIJ’s frustration with Hamas’s inaction was evident in al-Nakhalah’s speech a few hours after the ceasefire took effect on May 13. He thanked all parties without mentioning Hamas at all.

Hezbollah also did not join the PIJ – as it did in 2021 – because it was preoccupied with its own troubles in Lebanon. It has been experiencing tensions with its Lebanese political opponents amid the grave socioeconomic crisis in the country and a new engagement in the conflict with Israel would have only angered the Lebanese public.

PIJ’s recovery

The Israeli assaults on Gaza in 2022 and now in May have exacted a heavy toll on PIJ. The senior members it lost to Israeli assassinations would be hard to replace not just as military cadres but also as people with organisational experience and authority.

Some of them were founding members of the movement and have been on Israel’s wanted list for years. Among them were Jihad Ghannam, who had been training PIJ members since the 1980s, and Tariq Ezzedine, who had been organising operations against Israel in the occupied West Bank.

It will be hard for the PIJ to replace these senior members. Those who take over from them may not be able to perform as well as their predecessors. This will undoubtedly affect the PIJ’s capacity to carry out operations against Israel near the demarcation with Gaza and in the occupied West Bank. It may also affect its ability to adequately respond to Israeli aggression with rocket fire from the Strip.

That said, the assassinations will not result in a major crisis for the group or precipitate its collapse. The PIJ is quite resilient and able to attract new members that can replenish its ranks

It is also Hamas’s closest ally and as such will certainly receive its support. Given that the Hamas leadership aims to take over governing the West Bank as well, it wants to strengthen its allies to ensure their support. The movement will likely bolster the PIJ financially and logistically to help it recover from the losses.

The PIJ also has close ties to Hezbollah and Iran, which will help it rebuild its ranks and military capabilities by providing material support.

It will take the group several years to recover from these assassinations and other damage Israel has inflicted on it. It will also likely reconsider its approach to armed resistance and become more cautious and less impulsive in its confrontations with Israel. It may also accept Hamas’s arguments for seeking calm to allow civilians in Gaza some respite from Israeli aggression.

However, Israel itself may not be necessarily interested in de-escalating. The Israeli military sees the campaign against the PIJ as a success. This means that it will continue to try to assassinate Palestinian military leaders by launching assaults on Gaza. In those situations, it would be difficult for the PIJ, but also for Hamas, not to respond.

Source: Al Jazeera