In its latest act of aggression against the besieged Gaza Strip, Israel dealt a severe blow to the resistance movement Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). High-ranking commanders, including the majority of the members of the group’s military council in Gaza, were assassinated in rapid succession during the battle.
These targeted killings sought to weaken the PIJ’s leadership structure and disrupt the organization’s command and control. However, despite these setbacks, the PIJ pulled some new tricks out of its hat, managing to expand the range of its missile strikes, which reached as far as Tel Aviv.
To gain a deeper understanding of these strategic PIJ developments and its advancements in retaliatory strikes, it is important to examine two significant past military operations: “Black Belt” (2019) and “Breaking Dawn” or “Unity of Fronts” (2022).
Learning from the past
Those two battles were triggered by the killing of prominent leaders in the PIJ’s military wing, the Quds Brigades, which appears to have further emboldened Israeli occupation forces in their policy of targeted assassinations. From Israel’s perspective, the perceived political gains outweighed the costs incurred during these two rounds of conflict.
In November 2019, following the assassination of Quds Brigades commander Baha Abu al-Ata, the fighters responded recklessly without proper planning. Rocket launchers were emotionally fired immediately after the assassination, making the missile unit vulnerable to Israeli detection.
As a result, the Quds Brigades suffered significant losses, with around 27 missile force staff members, including three field commanders, being killed. This battle also had a secondary, more dangerous consequence: It established an Israeli policy of singling out a specific resistance group, leaving the PIJ to face their fate alone without the participation of other key resistance elements like Hamas.
During the 2022 “Unity of Fronts” battle, a similar fate befell the Quds Brigades following the arrest of PIJ leader Bassam al-Saadi. Although they fired over 400 rockets at Israeli settlements in retaliation and employed improved tactics compared to the previous battle, Palestinian public opinion fell victim to Israeli propaganda.
The Israelis’ narrative portrayed the PIJ as endangering the lives of two million people in the Gaza Strip—and neglecting the plight of 4,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails—for the purpose of securing the freedom of just one person. Furthermore, when some errant rockets fell in Gaza due to technical errors, doubts were raised about the PIJ’s ability to successfully wage war independently.
Trying new tactics
But on May 9, a significant shift occurred in the conflict. Despite the initial heavy blow from Israel’s first strike, which resulted in the loss of three prominent PIJ leaders—Khalil al-Bahtini, Tariq Ezz al-Din, and Jihad Ghanem—the movement’s response was purposefully delayed for approximately 35 hours.
This unusual stalling tactic confused Israeli calculations. During the brief lull, discussions were held between the PIJ, Hamas, and other resistance factions to ensure coordination and readiness for the upcoming fight. On May 10, “Operation Revenge of the Free” was launched, as announced by this Joint Operations Room.
The PIJ’s initial missile response unfolded in three stages. The first stage employed a “dumping and neutralization” tactic, focusing on Israeli settlements bordering the Gaza Strip within a 15-kilometer range. These targets included Sderot, Nahal Oz, Nativ Ha’atsarah, and Kerem Shalom.
The resistance’s aim was to first deplete the batteries of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. Following this, missile barrages were launched at about 30 cities, reaching depths of 20 to 75 kilometers into Israeli territory. Targets included Ashkelon, Ashdod, Beersheba, and extended all the way to Tel Aviv, Rishon Lezion, and Palmachim. By the end of the first day, the Quds Brigades had fired approximately 400 rockets.
Discussions in the joint command center
Amidst these developments, discussions were ongoing in the Joint Operations Room, while reports in the Arab and international media hinted at an imminent ceasefire. Egyptian news channels reported that Cairo’s intelligence efforts had led to a truce agreement between Israel and the Joint Ops Room.
This aligned with the Israeli security establishment’s assessment that the scale of retaliation would not surpass what was witnessed in the 2019 and 2022 rounds. The Israeli assessment viewed the PIJ as incapable of waging a prolonged battle, even with the involvement of smaller military factions such as the Al-Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades of the Popular Resistance Committees, The Martyr Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the National Resistance Brigades of the Omar al-Qasim Forces, and the Mujahideen Brigades.
Informed sources reveal to The Cradle that Egyptian intelligence did indeed reach an agreement of sorts with the leadership of Hamas, as a representative of the Joint Ops Room, on the first day of the conflict. However, a deal did not take place because it excluded any significant achievements for the Palestinian resistance.
During this time, Egyptian mediators attempted to establish contact with PIJ Secretary General Ziyad al-Nakhala, but he did not respond to the call. Subsequently, a phone conversation took place between Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’s political bureau, and Nakhala. Then, at approximately 7:00 p.m. on May 12, the Quds Brigades responded to the Egyptian proposal by launching a series of missile strikes targeting Israeli cities.
‘Deterring’ the Resistance
Despite the ongoing and surprising resilience displayed by PIJ, a statement on May 14 by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted that the balance of deterrence had been altered in Israel’s favor:
“Since Guardian of the Walls [Sword of Jerusalem or Sayf al-Quds], Hamas has not fired a single rocket into our territory. They are deterred. Operation Guardian of the Walls dealt Hamas the hardest blow in its history and caused a change in the deterrence equation and it has been working for two years now.”
“Our intention in Operation Shield and Arrow was to change the balance of deterrence against Islamic Jihad. The difference comes not only because of the targeted assassinations that we have been doing for the 16 years that I have been prime minister, but that we did so so calmly and effectively. We took down half of Islamic Jihad’s leadership in a surprise blow, and the other half during the operation.”
Assassinations: A failed policy
Despite the heavy losses suffered in the initial strike, the subsequent days of fighting proved equally devastating. Israel continued its targeted assassinations, eliminating key figures such as the commander of the missile force in the Quds Brigades, Ali Hassan Ghali, and his deputy, Ahmed Abu Daqqa, followed by the assassination of Operations Staff Commander Iyad al-Hassani on the fourth day.
Remarkably, after each targeted killing, the Quds Brigades intensified its missile strikes and introduced new tactics into the battle. This had the effect of shrouding the Israeli ground forces, which had misread the PIJ’s capabilities, in the fog of war.
The Quds Brigades employed tactics such as utilizing suicide drones, anti-tank missiles, and launching intensive mortar attacks. Its intention was clear: to demonstrate through firepower and brute force that the policy of targeted assassinations had not diminished its effectiveness in the field.
Not taking the bait
A source in PIJ tells The Cradle that the Quds Brigades leadership had carefully analyzed the lessons learned from the previous two battles. According to the source, Israel’s objective was to provoke another “emotional reaction” from the Brigades, through heavy firepower. To counter the Israeli tactic, the Brigades have focused on strengthening the discipline of field fighters. “The instructions were clear: do not shoot and wait for orders.”
This discipline led to an expansion of the area of missile launch sites, which reduced the effectiveness of Israel’s technological monitoring of the firing points, and weakened the possibility of identifying and targeting them.
The source explains: “When we decide to launch 50 missiles, we do so from 10 launch points, although we are able to launch them all from one or two points. By doing so, we preserve the safety of fighters and launchers.”
According to Israeli statistics, PIJ alone fired about 1,500 missiles, “which completely paralyzed the cities of the south, and caused the evacuation of 12,000 settlers,” killing an Israeli and a foreign worker, and injuring 77 others, in addition to hundreds of minor injuries and panic attacks.
These numbers, according to Palestinian researcher Ismail Muhammad, show that the PIJ was able, during only a 10-month interim between operations “Unity of the Fronts” and “Revenge of the Free,” to rebuild its missile stockpile and to address all previous technical problems. As Muhammad tells The Cradle:
“Despite the losses at the command level, no significant field losses were recorded. Four field fighters from the artillery unit and the armor unit were martyred, while the losses in the missile unit remained zero.”
“The continued firing of missiles at the same pace until the last moment indicates that that the assassination of the commanders did not affect the effectiveness of the field, and that the Brigades were able to assign new commanders, whom Israel described after the bombing of the city of Jerusalem on the last day as crazier than their predecessors.”
Down but not out
Shortly before the ceasefire took effect, PIJ launched over 120 rockets targeting Ashkelon, Tel Aviv, Palmachim, Rishon Lezion, and Rehovot. This was an attempt by the PIJ to remind Israelis that its military capabilities remained intact and plentiful and that it retained the upper hand, even though the ceasefire deal did not accurately reflect PIJ’s gains on the ground.
During the ceasefire negotiations, the PIJ was successful in persuading mediators to include the phrase “stop targeting individuals” in the agreement, signaling a halt to assassinations. However, it is widely acknowledged that Israel is unlikely to honor this commitment.
The military assessment of Operation Revenge of the Free is that it allowed the Quds Brigades to increase the cost for Israel by singling out PIJ cadres. Despite the loss of six commanders, a source confirms to The Cradle that the Brigades appointed new commanders during the battle who effectively resumed operations without missing a beat.
Predictably, Israel has already deviated from the spirit of a ceasefire by supporting the controversial Flag March of Jewish extremists through East Jerusalem, assisted and emboldened by the presence of 3,200 Israeli security forces. This visceral challenge to Palestinians represents a crucial test not only for PIJ but also for all resistance factions that have pledged to disrupt Israel’s provocative actions in Jerusalem.
The Flag March aims to project a false “image of victory” for Netanyahu and restore Israel’s deterrence – something he failed to achieve during the five-day confrontation with the second most powerful organization in the Gaza Strip in terms of strength and military capabilities, and arguably, the most militant and uncompromising in its armed struggle for national liberation.
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