The Platform

Palestinians in Gaza City on August 5.

The ceasefire between Israel and the Islamic Jihad has taken effect in the Gaza Strip after days of cross-border fighting triggered by Israeli airstrikes. Israel said its aerial bombardment was a pre-emptive action aimed at preventing rocket attacks planned by Islamic Jihad militants against Israeli targets.

In retaliation for the airstrikes, Islamic Jihad militants fired more than 1,000 rockets at Israel, forcing residents to flee to bomb shelters. Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a televised statement that the entire senior military command of Islamic Jihad was successfully eliminated and all of Israel’s goals were achieved.

Islamic Jihad is a relatively small armed group compared to Hamas which rules Gaza. Even so, Islamic Jihad is proving to be the most prominent threat emerging from Gaza for Israel. Last year, Islamic Jihad emerged as a dark horse. Despite losing top operatives as well as military infrastructure, Islamic Jihad managed to keep firing a large barrage of rockets until a ceasefire came into effect.

Islamic Jihad was founded in 1981 as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite being operational for more than four decades, Islamic Jihad remains one of the most important yet least understood Palestinian armed factions. The group has emerged as the second-largest armed movement in the Gaza Strip. The group has a reputation for being small and highly secretive, which makes it less prone to infiltration by Israeli intelligence services. Islamic Jihad consists of a leadership council and a military wing, called the Al-Quds Brigades. But unlike other militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad focuses exclusively on military activity and wishes to be seen as an elite vanguard rather than a broad community-based movement. Islamic Jihad is also opposed to any political engagement with Israel.

Hamas, which gained full control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, is often limited in its ability to act militarily against Israel because it bears responsibility for running the day-to-day affairs of Gaza. The coastal enclave is often in the news because of its humanitarian hardships. Islamic Jihad has no such limitations and has emerged as the more militant and radical faction, often undermining Hamas’ authority. Islamic Jihad has become the driving force in rocket-fire confrontations with Israel. In recent times, Islamic Jihad has tried to outflank Hamas by presenting itself as a more radical opponent of Israel.

In fact, according to Israeli media reports, the group is already winning in the firepower stakes. Meaning that while Hamas is believed to have far more long-range and precise rockets, Islamic Jihad is in possession of some 8,000 short-range rockets including some anti-tank missiles. Most of its weapons are now locally produced in Gaza, and in recent years it has developed an arsenal to rival that of Hamas, including some longer-range rockets capable of striking Tel Aviv.

Islamic Jihad’s strategy to confront Israel is simple: it tries to overwhelm the Israeli state-of-the-art Iron Dome missile defence system by the sheer volume of simultaneously fired projectiles. Many of its rockets are so cheap and easy to manufacture, in some cases requiring little more than a metal casing and an explosive, that the group has managed to accumulate them in significant numbers. So, even if Israel successfully stops all outward weapons supplies coming into Gaza — Islamic Jihad’s homegrown capabilities will allow it to bombard Israel with rocket fire for weeks, if not months. Islamic Jihad has moved towards entirely indigenous production, often manufacturing both the weapons and explosives out of raw materials readily available in the Gaza Strip.

Islamic Jihad leadership firmly believes that it has nothing to lose and everything to gain by escalating tensions with Israel as it will be seen as the leading resistance movement against the Zionist state. The Gaza Strip is currently suffering from an acute economic crisis. The cost of living is high, and unemployment is spiraling. So, Hamas rightly believes, at least for now, that calm is required to allow the people of Gaza some breathing space. Hamas now wants to strengthen its regime by improving the living conditions for Gazans and then slowly increase its influence on the West Bank by showcasing itself as an efficient administrator.

If Hamas tries to stop and curtail Islamic Jihad, it will be accused of collaborating with Israel. This leaves the leaders of Hamas caught between a rock and a hard place. But if Hamas lets Islamic Jihad carry on with its operations against Israel, that will likely lead to a harsh Israeli response. Nevertheless, Hamas will soon have to make tough choices, and this means taking effective measures to curtail Islamic Jihad’s crusade against Israel which could get messy.

Manish Rai is a geopolitical analyst and columnist for the Middle East and Af-Pak region and the editor of geopolitical news agency ViewsAround (VA). He has done reporting from Jordon, Iran, and Afghanistan. His work has been quoted in the British Parliament.