Already Set Back by Previous Israeli Attacks, Islamic Jihad Now Forced to Rebuild Leadership

Israeli military strikes in 2019 and 2021 left the organization with half of its rocket inventory. Today, the assassination of Islamic Jihad leaders last week will bring new faces to the top of the organization. It's not just Israel: Hamas also does not intend to allow it to grow stronger at its own expense

Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
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Rockets fired by Palestinian militants toward Israel, in Gaza City, Saturday.
Rockets fired by Palestinian militants toward Israel, in Gaza City, Saturday.Credit: Fatima Shbair/AP
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

The Palestinian Islamic Jihad may be the second-largest military organization in the Gaza Strip, but it is still lagging significantly behind Hamas. Although the organization possesses rocket-launching capabilities, an anti-tank array, some drones and even a limited naval force, the significant damage it took in the 2019 and 2021 rounds of fighting have left it with limited means in the current round. However, a security source makes it clear that “the organization, as we see, is still able to conduct rounds of fighting lasting several days, and disrupt daily life from the Gaza perimeter to the center of the country.”

Days of war: Understanding this weekend's Israel-Gaza flare-up

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Until the 2019 round of fighting, which began with the Israel Defense Forces assassination of the organization’s northern sector commander, Baha Abu al-Ata, Islamic Jihad held a significant stockpile of rockets, even compared to that of Hamas. The group had some 8,000 rockets in total, most short and intermediary range, and a minority with long-range capabilities Its manpower, then as now, is estimated at some 9,000, of whom 6,000 are fighters.

Over the two days of the 2019 round, the IDF hit Islamic Jihad’s rocket manufacturing sites, military compounds, tunnels, operatives’ homes, ammunition caches, training compounds, and headquarters. Twenty six of the organization’s operatives were killed, although other than Abu al-Ata, most were low-level operatives.

The organization suffered further damage during the 2021 round of fighting, as the IDF attacked its infrastructures and munitions stockpiles. Before the outbreak of the current round, the organization was estimated to have about 5,000 rockets – most of short range and a limited number of medium-range rockets, capable of striking up to 40 kilometers away.

The number of longer-range rockets the organization has is negligible. “This is an organization with limited command and control capabilities,” says a security source. “So the damage it sustained in 2021 regarding [its ability to] rebuild its power was greater than what Hamas sustained.”

Palestinians gather on the rubble of houses at the scene where senior commander of Islamic Jihad militant group Khaled Mansour was killed in Israeli strikes, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on Sunday.Credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

Once the 2019 round ended, Islamic Jihad invested great efforts in restoring its military capabilities, but at first it had to limit itself to production of munitions within the Gaza Strip, with limited resources and occasional IDF airstrikes against the organization’s infrastructures.

Later on, Islamic Jihad turned to manufacturing munitions in Syria, under the guidance and support of Iran and Hezbollah. In February 2020, the IDF attacked Islamic Jihad targets both in Syria and in Gaza, to signal that Israel will not tolerate the organization’s growth.

A series of concessions by Israel to the Gaza Strip at the end of the 2021 round of fighting, including work permits in Israel and entry of goods to the Strip, strengthened the Palestinian economy which was on the verge of collapse.

This also increased tensions between Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which opposed what it viewed as the inception of normalization with Israel. Thus, the organization tried from time to time to carry out operations against Israel contrary to the wishes of Hamas, which refrained from joining the fray in this round.

Alongside attempts to strengthen its military abilities, Islamic Jihad has recently been trying to fortify its position within the West Bank, hoping that this will carry over to its status in Gaza as well. During the first half of the year, the organization succeeded in creating a few terror cells in Jenin and Nablus.

A large part of the IDF’s activity in its operation in the West Bank, which began with the terror wave in March and is still ongoing, is directed against the Islamic Jihad’s operatives in these cities. The arrest of Bassam al-Saadi, a senior Islamic Jihad commander, during the West Bank operation this week was the backdrop to the current escalation.

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi greeting the Secretary-General of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement, Ziyad Nakhalah, during a meeting in Tehran, last Thursday.Credit: AFP

Intelligence assessments indicate that Islamic Jihad was surprised by the Israeli initiative to start the current operation. The security establishment believes that the assassination of the organization’s senior officers – commander of the Strip’s northern sector, Taysir al-Jaabari, and commander of the southern sector Khaled Mansour – caused it serious damage, even more than the destruction of its munitions. Now these key positions in the organization are expected to be filled by younger figures, who are not necessarily aligned with the organization’s political leadership, which is located in Lebanon and Syria.

Concurrently, the security establishment projects that Tehran – which funds much of Islamic Jihad’s payroll and munitions expenses – will increase its support for the organization, weakened in the recent rounds of fighting. On the other hand, Hamas will not allow the organization to grow powerful enough to challenge it for supremacy in Gaza.

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