Meir Ben Shabbat

Israel can nullify the threat of Palestinian Islamic Jihad

Israel must act to continue the success of Operation Shield and Arrow, including deterring Hamas from joining PIJ's attacks
A man enters a public bomb shelter in Ashkelon, southern Israel after Israel killed three senior commanders of the Islamic Jihad terror group in targeted airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, May 9, 2023. (AP Photo/ Tsafrir Abayov)
A man enters a public bomb shelter in Ashkelon, southern Israel after Israel killed three senior commanders of the Islamic Jihad terror group in targeted airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, May 9, 2023. (AP Photo/ Tsafrir Abayov)

Israel has achieved its initial goals in its current operation against Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), code-named Operation Shield and Arrow. The Jewish state restored its deterrence against the radical terror organization, while demonstrating that the ongoing internal political debates will not prevent it from taking determined action against external enemies. However, the hostilities in Gaza, which began with targeted strikes against three PIJ leaders last night, have the potential to expand and inflame multiple arenas. Israel therefore must take several steps now to ensure that this operation remains a success.

In analyzing Israel’s latest strikes, it is important to recall that the PIJ, recognized as a terrorist organization by the US, EU, UK, Australia, Canada, Japan and others, is one of Iran’s main proxies in the region, funded by Iran to the tune of millions of dollars a year. Indeed, Ramadan Shalah, PIJ’s long-time leader, declared, “The Islamic Jihad is one fruit of the fruitful tree of [Iranian Supreme Leader] Khamenei.” As a result, PIJ’s senior leadership resides mainly in Syria and Lebanon. In addition to its terror infrastructure in Gaza, PIJ also operates terror cells in Palestinian Authority-controlled areas, particularly Nablus and Jenin, and has been making efforts to incite terror attacks by Israel’s Arab citizens as well.

A PIJ response to last night’s targeted strikes against its leaders and military sites is a certainty. It will likely come once its remaining commanders have had a chance to go underground. The questions that remain are whether Hamas, the largest terror organization in Gaza, will join in the fighting, and whether PIJ will be able to expand the hostilities to other geographic arenas.

At this point, Israel must focus on several goals. Operation Shield and Arrow must end with PIJ not only having suffered major losses, but having failed to reach any significant achievements in its attacks against Israel. That will diminish its standing and deter it from conducting future attacks. A top priority for Israel must therefore be to ensure maximum protection of its Home Front.

Secondly, Israel must make clear to PIJ that any attempts to expand the circle of fighting to other arenas will greatly increase the severity of Israel’s response. In parallel, Israel must clarify to Hamas that if it joins in the fighting, its commanders and military bases will immediately pay the price. If Israel does identify preparations by Hamas to launch attacks, it should preemptively strike high-value Hamas targets across Gaza.

To put pressure on PIJ to cease its attacks, Israel should halt the inflow of goods to Gaza, except for humanitarian aid. This will encourage Hamas, which taxes these goods to fill its coffers, to demand that PIJ hold its fire.

The current operation comes at a sensitive time for Israel. Next week will see both increased Palestinian incitement around the 75th anniversary of what the Palestinians call the “Nakba,” i.e., the “disaster” that was the creation of the State of Israel. It will also mark the 56th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty in 1967. It is likely that Palestinian leaders and terrorist organizations will try to use the current operation to incite violence and terror, not only from the West Bank, but in Israel’s mixed Arab-Jewish cities as well. Israel’s law enforcement agencies must be prepared to respond quickly to any attempts at igniting violent riots or domestic terror, to preserve peace and coexistence between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.

Sadly, it is the people of Gaza who are likely to once again pay the price for the efforts of Palestinian terror organizations to attack Israel’s civilians. Israel’s targeted strikes, such as those we saw last night, are meant to deter such attacks and prevent the need for further hostilities. The international community, including the countries of the region, must clearly demand that PIJ, Hamas, and other Palestinian factions halt their Iranian-funded terror activities, for the benefit of the Palestinians. Israel, for its part, will continue to do all that is necessary to defend its citizens.

About the Author
Meir Ben Shabbat is head of the Misgav Institute for National Security & Zionist Strategy, in Jerusalem. He served as Israel's national security adviser and head of the National Security Council between 2017 and 2021, and prior to that for 25 years in the General Security Services (Shabak).
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