As fighting fades, Islamic Jihad’s losses seen as less than catastrophic

Former IDF official says terror group suffered a significant, but not fatal, setback, while Gazan analyst contends Israel caused only limited damage

Adam Rasgon is a former Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Palestinians gather around the remains of a house that the IDF says was used as a weapons cache controlled by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip November 13, 2019. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)
Palestinians gather around the remains of a house that the IDF says was used as a weapons cache controlled by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip November 13, 2019. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

After two days of intense fighting in Gaza, Israel’s military is contending that its forces dealt a “severe blow” to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group. But some Israeli and Palestinian analysts have expressed disagreement over the extent of the damage the military actually caused the Iran-backed organization via its air campaign.

While some Israeli analysts have argued the Israel Defense Forces brought about a significant setback for Islamic Jihad, some of their Palestinian counterparts have asserted that the military only did limited harm to the group.

Israeli security forces eliminated Baha Abu al-Ata, a top commander in the Al-Quds Brigades, the Islamic Jihad terror group’s military wing, in a dawn strike on Tuesday in Gaza. Terror groups in the Strip, namely the Al-Quds Brigades, subsequently fired large salvos of rockets at cities and towns in Israel for nearly two days, prompting retaliatory Israeli strikes in the Palestinian enclave.

Early Thursday Israel and Islamic Jihad agreed to a ceasefire. In the subsequent hours, the IDF and the terror group halted their fire, but at least six rockets were fired later in the day.

In this photo taken on October 21, 2016, Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror leader Baha Abu al-Ata attends a rally in Gaza City. (STR/AFP)

“Islamic Jihad took a very hard hit. It lost its main commander in Gaza and 12 to 15 key activists who would launch rockets. It did not achieve what it wanted or what it could describe as a victory,” Amos Yadlin, a former IDF Military Intelligence chief, said in a phone call, referring to Abu al-Ata, whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as “the main instigator of terrorism from the Gaza Strip.”

Rockets are fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel on November 13, 2019. (Anas Baba/AFP)

The IDF killed at least 13 members of the Al-Quds Brigades in strikes on the Gaza Strip this week, according to Palestinian sources.

The army also said that it hit dozens of Islamic Jihad targets between Tuesday and early Thursday morning including weapons manufacturing and storage facilities, military bases, the homes of its operatives used to store weapons, training bases, command centers, rocket launchers, naval commando boats, tunnel openings, rocket launching bases and observation posts.

Amos Yadlin, former director of military intelligence, Jan 2012. (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/FLASH90)
Amos Yadlin, former director of military intelligence and current head of the Institute of National Security Studies (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

But Yadlin stated that the Iran-backed group was not on the verge of falling apart.

“Is Islamic Jihad collapsing? No. They still have enough terrorists and they have many rockets,” he said.

Talal Okal, a prominent political analyst in Gaza, argued that Israel had only caused limited damage to Islamic Jihad, considered the second most powerful terror group in Gaza after Hamas, which has controlled the small territory since ousting the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in 2007.

“The Israeli army focused on hitting members of Islamic Jihad because it could not find major targets such as buildings that belong to it,” he said in a phone call. “It only caused them a small amount of losses.”

Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists attend the funeral of one of their members in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, November 14, 2019. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP)

In past flare-ups, Israel has demolished large buildings in Gaza, which it has accused the Hamas terror group of using.

Okal added that Islamic Jihad also demonstrated that it was able to shut down major parts of Israel.

“Islamic Jihad showed that it can paralyze half of Israel and force Israelis to sit near shelters all day,” he said. “It sees that as a major achievement.”

Israel closed schools in Tel Aviv on Tuesday and shuttered educational institutions and businesses throughout much of southern part of the country for the duration of the hostilities.

A child lies inside a bomb shelter in the coastal city of Ashkelon, Israel, amid a two-day bout of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, November 13, 2019. (Tsafrir Abayov/AP)

But even if Islamic Jihad proved it could battle Israel, it now needs to deal with the fallout of having been left without Hamas’s support during its confrontation with Israel, Yadlin argued.

Unlike previous escalations of tensions between Israel and terror groups in Gaza, Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, was widely believed to have not actively participating in the fighting.

Hamas’s decision to stay out of the fighting was seen as a major factor keeping a lid on the violence, allowing the sides to reach a ceasefire fairly quickly.

Mkhaimar Abu Sada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City. (Screenshot: Palestine TV)

Mkhaimar Abu Sada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City, said that Hamas made the decision to stay out of the fighting largely to spare the coastal enclave of major losses.

“Hamas had to weigh two choices. The first was to join the fight, which would have resulted in a bitter conflict with civilians and large buildings being targeted. The second was to stay on the sidelines and prevent major Israeli retaliation,” he said. “It chose the first option because it did not want to deal with the consequences of a major confrontation, which likely would have been catastrophic.”

In the last war between Israel and terror groups in Gaza, substantial parts of the coastal enclave were destroyed. In that conflict, well over 2,000 Palestinians died and more than 270,000 were displaced. Israel says many of those killed were fighters belonging to Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terror groups.

Hamas is responsible for providing services to and governing Palestinians in Gaza, while Islamic Jihad is not.

Okal contended that Hamas and Islamic Jihad would move past their differences over the latest round of fighting with Israel, which he accused of attempting to drive a wedge between them.

“They are both from here and realize that Israel wants them to be divided,” he said. “I think they will deal with this issue, if they indeed consider it one, because they do not want to play into Israel’s hand.”

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this article.

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