THE PLATFORM

The latest round of escalations between Israel and armed groups from Gaza recently concluded. The most recent round of fighting saw thousands of rockets fired towards Israeli cities and Israel responding in kind. Hamas, the largest group, and de-facto ruler of Gaza, received much attention during this flare-up. But it was the relatively smaller Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) that proved to be this conflict’s dark horse. Despite losing top operatives as well as military infrastructure, the PIJ managed to keep firing a large barrage of rockets until last month’s ceasefire came into effect. In addition, PIJ rocket-fire was extremely heavy and comparable in terms of both volume and range to that of Hamas’. This illustrates that the PIJ has stepped out of the shadow of its erstwhile big brother.

Founded in 1979, as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the PIJ remains one of the most important yet least understood of the Palestinian armed factions. Designated as a terrorist outfit by the United States and the European Union, it has grown to become the second-largest armed movement in Gaza and the third largest within the Palestinian Territories. The group has a reputation of being small and highly secretive, which makes it less prone to infiltration by Israeli intelligence services. Hamas bears responsibility for running the day-to-day affairs of Gaza, the coastal enclave often in news because of humanitarian hardships. The PIJ is free of the limitations of governance and social welfare work and has emerged as the more militant faction, occasionally even undermining Hamas’ authority. Its exclusive priority rests in jihad.

Thus, an increasing number of Palestinians see the PIJ as less willing to compromise than Hamas. Enjoying direct Iranian backing, the PIJ has become the driving force in rocket-fire confrontations with Israel. Indeed, it is known to unilaterally pick fights with Tel Aviv without taking any other resistance groups into confidence. In recent times, the PIJ has tried to outflank Hamas by presenting itself as a more radical opponent of Israel. Though this is, in large part, due to increased support from Tehran which views the PIJ as its golden child.

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 rockets than the PIJ — the latter is in possession of some 8,000 short-range rockets. Incidentally, 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. The PIJ tried 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 PIJ has managed to accumulate them in significant numbers. So, even if Israel successfully stops all outward weapons supplies coming into Gaza— the PIJ’s homegrown capabilities will allow it to bombard Israel with rocket fire for weeks, if not months. Palestinian 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.

Shortly after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, its military wing, al-Qassam Brigades, launched an extensive military operation to disarm other groups operating in the area. Only two outfits were afforded extensive “relief” on this front. One was the Popular Resistance Committees, and the other, the PIJ. The leadership of Hamas will likely regret this move, especially since the Palestinian Islamic Jihad has again refused to kowtow to Hamas. The PIJ firmly believes that it has nothing to lose and everything to gain by escalating tensions with Israel. Not least because it will be seen as leading resistance against the Zionist state. Whereas Hamas rightly believes, at least for now, that calm is required to allow the people of Gaza some breathing space. Nevertheless, Hamas will soon have to make tough choices if it does not wish to be ousted from the Gaza driving seat. And this means taking effective measures to prevent the PIJ’s independence and curbing self-serving activities.

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.