The Islamic Jihad, which traded deadly fire with Israel last weekend in Gaza, does not expect a subsequent truce to last long and has at least 8,000 fighters ready for war, a spokesman said on Thursday.
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Islamic Jihad is the second largest armed group in Gaza, after Hamas, which rules the tiny Mediterranean enclave. The two share a commitment to the destruction of Israel and both are classified as terrorist groups by most Western governments.
However, while Hamas has recently spent much of its energy on the business of government, Islamic Jihad has kept its focus firmly on the conflict, gaining in prominence and enjoying significant backing from Muslim supporters, including Iran.
"We are proud and honored to say that the Islamic Republic of Iran gives us support and help," Abu Ahmed, the spokesman for Islamic Jihad's armed wing, the Al-Quds Brigades, told Reuters in a rare, long interview.
He denied widespread reports that Iran had provided his group with arms
and smiled at suggestions it now receives more sophisticated weaponry
from Tehran than Hamas. He also declined to comment on rumors that the
Jihadists were trained by Iran.
"What I will say is that we have every right to turn to every source of
power for help," said the burly, bearded Abu Ahmed, occasionally
flicking a string of yellow prayer beads.
Islamic Jihad's latest confrontation with Israel left 12 Palestinian
gunmen and one Israeli civilian dead. The fighting ended only after
neighbouring Egypt brokered a ceasefire with both parties, but Abu Ahmed
did not see it lasting long.
"Theoretically the calm has been restored, but in practice it hasn't
really," he said. Israel, he said, is itching for a fight in Gaza
following last month's prisoner-swap accord, in which Israel released
477 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Schalit, an Israeli
soldier held by Hamas since 2006.
Israel says it attacks only in self-defense.Islamic Jihad denies launching rocket that began hostilities
Israel killed five senior Islamic Jihad operatives on Saturday in
retaliation for a rocket attack two days earlier that it blamed on the
group. That rocket caused no casualties, but landed deep enough into
Israel to set off sirens on Tel Aviv's outskirts.
Abu Ahmed denied responsibility for the missile, saying this was how
Israel had managed to find five top fighters together in the open --
because they had not expected to be targeted.
But the Al-Quds Brigades soon hit back, firing numerous rockets into
southern Israel, piercing the country's defensive missile shield. One
Israeli man died, at least four others were injured, while cars and a
building were also set ablaze.
The group posted a video online showing a missile-launcher on the back
of a truck firing a salvo of rockets. It was the first time the group
has claimed to have such firepower, although there was no independent
confirmation of its use.
"The Al-Quds Brigades really surprised Israel, forcing them to rethink
their assessment of us ... I don't think they realized we had that
weaponry," said Abu Ahmed, indicating the vehicle was immediately hidden
underground after the attack.
Al-Quds Brigades cells are dotted around Gaza and Abu Ahmed said there was huge demand from youngsters to join.
"We take some, but can't accept everyone ... It is a question of
quality, not quantity," he said, giving for the first time an estimate
of the strength of the force. "We have at least 8,000 fighters, who are
fully equipped."Islamic Jihad: Hamas not involved in recent fighting
The group got a boost to its standing in August when the new rulers in
Egypt started dealing with it directly over truces, rather than through
Hamas. Abu Ahmed said Hamas was not involved in the latest fighting and
that all the talking was with Egypt.
He played down reports of tensions with Hamas, which since Israel's
military offensive in Gaza in late 2008 has appeared reluctant to go
head-to-head with its sworn enemy.
"Certainly in terms of ideology, there is no difference between Hamas
and the Islamic Jihad. The difference is in the methodology," Abu Ahmed
said, adding that Hamas's governmental role meant that it was "more
vulnerable to outside pressure".
He said Islamic Jihad's biggest problem was the Israeli armed drones
that regularly buzz over Gaza seeking out operatives. "Warfare has
changed. You can't just hide a gun in your jacket like you could in the
1980s," he said, adding that the Jihadist fighters were not afraid of
"It is a good feeling to be under drone attack. When we chose the path
of resistance, we opted either for martyrdom or victory. Martyrdom is
the more desirable."