Iran’s Role in Israel’s Gaza Dilemma

May 15, 2019 | Jonathan Spyer

Considering the role played by Palestinian Islamic Jihad—an Iran-backed organization that operates in Gaza with Hamas’s permission—in the most recent round of combat, Jonathan Spyer writes:

The fighting was triggered by Islamic Jihad snipers’ targeting of IDF personnel on the border area on May 3. Two IDF soldiers—a man and a woman—were wounded. The attack took place against the background of a Hamas-organized border demonstration. Israel’s response was then met by further Hamas missile and rocket attacks.

The ability of Islamic Jihad to heat up the situation on the border is a subject of concern and close attention in Israel. Islamic Jihad, unlike Hamas, is not a largely independent actor with deep roots in Palestinian society. Rather, it is a purely military organization, which from its formation has been closely aligned with Iran. Its current leader, Ziad Nakhala, is based in Syria and is a frequent visitor to Tehran. The movement takes its direction from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Israeli officials consider the recent uptick in Islamic Jihad activity out of Gaza to be part of an Iranian [effort] to draw Israel into a prolonged operation in Gaza, . . . intended to divert attention from the more crucial front to Israel’s north in Syria and Lebanon. In that latter arena, an ongoing, undeclared conflict between Israel and Iran is under way. Iran is seeking to build an infrastructure for future attacks on Israel. Israel is trying to prevent this. Gaza is a mere irritant by comparison.

For Tehran, however, it is a useful irritant. Control and direction of Islamic Jihad is intended to enable Iran to turn the flames in Gaza up or down according to its immediate needs. Israel’s reluctance to be drawn into a long and open-ended campaign in the area should be seen against this larger regional backdrop.

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