By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
A version of this appeared at The Jerusalem Post on November 15
‘On both the northern and southern fronts, the situation is tese and fragile and could deteriorate into a confrontation,” DF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen Aviv Kochavi said in late October. Israel was facing a complex set of threats among Iranian proxies and allies and was increasing its pace of preparations.
We now know that one of those preparations was to strike Bahaa Abu al-Ata. Al-Ata was planning terror attacks and had been deeply involved in Islamic Jihad’s escalation against Israel over the last year. “Decapitating Palestinian Islamic Jihadist Abu al-Ata was rightful and necessary, as he was planning terror attacks, undermining security and Gaza stabilization efforts,” Amos Yadlin, director of Tel Aviv University’s INSS wrote on November 12. Al-Ata is just one person, but eliminating him was supposed to send a message to PIJ’s leadership and operators. Over the course of two days of fighting Israel struck another two dozen PIJ members.
The operation Israel planned took into account a harsh response from PIJ. The organization has thousands of rockets with ranges up to 80km. The expected barrage of rockets was met with rounds of airstrikes designed to deter PIJ and deal it a sugnificant blow, according to Israel. Infrastructure of terror was hit, naval assets, tunnels, headquarters and rocket launchers. Israel is assessing how much impact this had.
The larger picture is that PIJ is Iran’s proxy in Gaza. This is not a relationship of convenience like Hamas has with Iran. This is a direct relationship. Yadlin wrote that “Iran’s proxy war throughout the region in general will wait on the doorstep of Israel’s next government.” The operation against PIJ should be seen as a way to reduce the chances of a two-front war if and when there is another round of tensions with Iran in the north. Kochavi said in late October that Iran is a strategic threat and that Iran is using the territory of other countries with weak governments to threaten Israel. That means Lebanon and Syria. Iran also has pro-Iranian militias in Iraq where Iran has allegedly stationed rockets in Iraq since at least 2018. It gave ballistic missiles to Shi’ite proxies in Iraq, to units among the Popular Mobilization Forces.
In July mysterious explosions destroyed numerous munitions warehouses of the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. Iraq and leaders of the PMU blamed Israel and the US for the attacks. Iranian-backed groups harassed US facilities and likely were behind numerous mortar and rocket attacks near US bases and the US embassy.
The pressure on Iran’s proxies in Iraq has grown so intense that on October 23 Israel’s Army radio reported that Israel is “preemptively bolstering its defenses over fears Iran may retaliate against an ongoing series of attacks on its proxies in Syria and Iraq that have been attributed to Israel,” Ynet noted.
Timeline to the crisis
In short, here is what happened. We must remember the wider context. Iran is searching to improve its land bridge to the sea. The Syria civil war is winding down and in the summer of 2018 the Syrian regime, backed by Russia and Iran and Hezbollah, re-took southern Syria near the Golan.
In June 2018 an airstrike hit an Iraq militia called Kataib Hezbollah that had established a headquarters in Syria. August 2018 Reuters reported that Iran sent missiles its allies in Iraq. In October 2018 Islamic Jihad fired rockets at Israel on orders from Iran and due to an internal contest with Hamas. In the wake of the October-November Gaza tensions and as Iran sought to entrench in Syria, Israel conducted a ten day drill for the possibility of a two front war. On December 4, 2018 Israel launched Northern Shield to root out Hezbollah tunnels. On January 20, 2019 the IDF says Iran’s IRGC Quds Force fired a rocket at Israel from Syria. INSS produced an assessment the next day arguing that Israel face a multi-front war this year.
In mid-May US-Iran tensions heated up. Iran struck at ships in the Persian Gulf, downed a US drone and sent a militia to Iraq to fire at Saudi Arabia. Islamic Jihad warned on May 30, in an interview with its leader Ziyad al-Nakhalah on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar that Islamic Jihad could fire 1,000 rockets a day. Israel sought through some efforts to dissuade Al-Ata, the PIJ leader in Gaza, from hostile activities. He did not stop and Israel viewed him as a ticking time bomb.
By August Israel was facing tensions in the north. Killer drones were being prepared by Hezbollah and Shi’ite militias, with orders from the IRGC, to target Israel. An airstrike took out a drone team in late August. A week and a half later a warehouse at an alleged Iranian base near Albukamal in Syria on the Iraqi border was hit in an airstrike. The IRGC fired rockets at Israel on September 9 from near Damascus according Asharq al-Awsat, the same day as the Albukamal base was bombed. Five days later a swarm of Iranian drones and cruise missiles hit Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq facility.
The struggle Israel has faced against Islamic Jihad is directly related to the escalating tensions throughout the region. It does not operate in a vacuum. Israel’s ability to conduct a operation against it and isolate it through keeping Hamas out of the fighting was an extraordinary achievement. The larger problem is that PIJ is one of the smaller Iranian-backed forces arrayed against Israel. It is dangerous because it is so close to Israel. But it has only 5% of the rockets that Hezbollah has. When compared to the IRGC’s roots in Syria and the Iraqi Shi’ite militia bases, and even the technology Iran has transferred to the Houthis in Yemen, PIJ is less important. It is also blockaded and isolated. Breaking it’s ability ability to threaten Israel in the case of a two-front war is important because the 450 missiles it fired over forty-eight hours on November 12-13 are 450 missiles it no longer has. It has saved some of its long-range ordnance. This is a concern.
Iran has used PIJ in the past to pester and threaten Israel and heat up conflicts at a time of Tehran’s choosing. By striking Al-Ata Israel turned the tables on this Iranian ticking bomb. But the larger context is still an Iranian threat across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Removing one of PIJ’s pawns from the board was a move in a larger conflict.