On the border of Gaza, facing Iran - analysis

PIJ is important for Iran because the Islamic republic's regime often argues that the terrorist group is the center of “resistance” against Israel and the US.

Rocket from Gaza lands on a road in Gan Yavne (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Rocket from Gaza lands on a road in Gan Yavne
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Tuesday morning saw more than 150 rockets fired from Gaza by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in response to Israel striking and killing an Islamic Jihad commander. This builds upon more than a year of escalating tensions between Israel and the militants in Gaza, which often comes in the context of Iran tensions. The question is whether this morning’s rocket fire is the storm before the calm or just a prelude to something worse.
In the past, particularly last October and November, the tensions between Islamic Jihad and Israel were seen in the context of Iran. Iran is a close ally, supplier and financial support of PIJ. It sees the terrorist group like one of its many proxies and allies in the region. In contrast to other groups, PIJ is made up of Sunni Arabs in Gaza, whereas Iran usually works solely with Shi’ite proxies such as Hezbollah.
PIJ is important for Iran because Tehran’s regime often argues that it is the center of “resistance” against Israel and the US. In order to weave a narrative of “resistance,” it must show that it is actually doing something against Israel. Since Iran doesn’t like to sacrifice its own Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members, it works through other groups. In Lebanon it supplies Hezbollah with precision guidance for its rocket arsenal; in Gaza it has relations with PIJ and also with Hamas.
The morning hours in Israel brought increasing barrages from Gaza, creeping north toward Tel Aviv. They aimed at Gadera and Holon and then Modi’in. But by 11:30 a.m., PIJ was hesitant to extend the range to Tel Aviv. It wants to show that it will not remain silent in the face of the killing of Baha Abu al-Ata, the commander that Israel killed in the morning. In the past, PIJ has shown that it can fire large barrages of rockets and that it has sophisticated and numerous projectiles.
I drove south from Jerusalem toward the border of Gaza on Tuesday. After Gadera, Route 4 heads toward Ashdod and Ashkelon, the two large coastal cities north of Gaza. It was there that a missile struck near the side of the road, the blast leaving a small crater around a meter long. The explosion had caused injuries, and a car drove off the road, the driver in shock. Had it impacted just a few meters away in the road, it would have been worse.
Further south, below Ashkelon, the roads became empty. The army had cordoned off part of the roads near the Gaza Strip, stopping traffic from Netiv Ha Asa’ara to Sderot. This road has been the front line of so many conflicts going back to the Gaza disengagement. Rockets fired from the Strip go over the road and head toward other parts of Israel. In the past, when Israel has built up ground forces before fighting in Gaza, it has staged them near here.
The border was quiet on Tuesday after the initial morning rocket fire – until noon. A few booms could be heard in the distance. Airplanes and drones made a cacophony in the distance. PIJ knows that if it continues, this will lead to a wider conflict. Hamas also remained outside the conflict in the morning, knowing that it, too, must calculate what comes next. It has talked about elections with the Palestinian Authority, and must gauge the possible gains and losses from a new conflict with Israel. Since March of 2018, Hamas has staged protests and fired a thousand rockets at Israel. It knows the outcome. PIJ has also fired numerous rockets.
With Syrian media reporting an airstrike in Damascus, there are wider calculations as well. However, pro-Iranian media tended to shy away from numerous accounts of the conflict in Gaza, perhaps not wanting to admit that their proxy was in trouble. In August, Israel struck a “killer drone” team near the Golan that was linked to Iran and Hezbollah. In September, Shi’ite militias in Damascus tried to fire a rocket at Israel. The tensions are clear, but Iran faces challenges in Syria and Iraq. It wants to crush anti-Iranian protests in Iraq, and is concerned that the US may stay in Iraq. Hezbollah also faces protests in Lebanon.
On the border of Gaza, near a concrete shelter that has been painted with scenes of a farm, the Iranian threat seems far away. But it is always right there. The bucolic fields, the greenhouses and the chirping of birds say that there will not be a major war. The fields have not yet been churned up by Merkava tanks as they were in 2014. The soldiers are walking nonchalantly. They’ve been up since the morning too, with the sirens. Everyone is waiting.