Analysis: Israel, Islamic Jihad, and Other Palestinian Armed Groups Enter Conflict

(Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP) (Photo by SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images)

On May 8, Israel launched Operation Shield and Arrow when it eliminated three senior members of Iran-backed terrorist group Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. The IDF identified Khalil Bahtini, Jihad Ghanam, and Tareq Izzeldin as members of Islamic Jihad killed in the operation.

Bahtini was a senior Islamic Jihad commander who had been in charge of the recent rocket attacks against Israel and served as a liaison with the group’s politburo, the Israeli military said. Ghanam held command responsibilities that included weapons and money transfers between Islamic Jihad and Gaza’s ruling Islamist terrorist group, Hamas. Izzeldin coordinated between Islamic Jihad cadres in Gaza and the West Bank and was “planning multiple terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians,” the military said.

Following the Israeli military strikes, the Joint Operations Room (JOR) of the Palestinian factions launched Operation Revenge of the Free (ثأر الأحرار) and began a campaign of rocket and mortar fire targeting Israeli communities and cities, including Tel-Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem.

The Joint Operations Room of the Palestinian Factions

Hamas founded the JOR in 2017. It comprises approximately twelve armed Palestinian factions coordinating military operations against Israel during a conflict.

While Hamas leads the JOR, it appears it did not participate in firing rockets at Israel. Hamas’ absence on the battlefield was a positive development for the Israeli defense establishment, which therefore chose to not strike Hamas targets during the conflict. In its statements, the JOR expressed unity and coordination among its members – despite Hamas refraining from involvement. 

During the conflict, Palestinian militant groups fired approximately 1,468 rockets, or approximately 298 per day, toward Israel over five days of fighting, according to the Israeli military. In the May 2021 Gaza conflict, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other armed Palestinian groups fired approximately 4,340 rockets in eleven days, or about 434 daily. The discrepancy in the number of rockets fired in 2021 and 2023 supports the appearance that Hamas sat out active combat during last week’s campaign.

Ten Armed Militant Groups Participated in the Conflict

According to open-source statements and evidence gathered by FDD’s Long War Journal, 10 Palestinian militant groups participated in Operation Revenge of the Free. The participant groups included Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian Mujahideen Movement, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Resistance Movement, the Popular Resistance Committees, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Abdel Al-Qadir Al-Husseini Brigades, Al-Ahrar Movement and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command.

While 10 armed groups participating in attacks is a substantial number, almost all likely played a supportive role by shelling Israeli communities near the Gaza border, leaving Islamic Jihad to spearhead rocket attacks on major Israeli cities such as Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Other armed Palestinian groups, such as Salafi-jihadist organizations, have not produced statements or evidence indicating they joined active combat.

Eighteen Militants Killed During the Conflict

Islamic Jihad said 11 members, including six senior figures, one field commander, and four regular fighters died during the conflict. In a communique, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine acknowledged that five members died “while performing their jihadi duty.” Lastly, the Palestinian Mujahideen Movement said a field commander and a fighter died by “shelling from the occupation in east Gaza while carrying out their jihadi work.”

Including militants, 33 Palestinians were killed in the fighting. According to the IDF, four Palestinians died from rockets fired by militants.

Assessing the Conflict

The Israeli military had four important objectives in Operation Shield and Arrow: (1) Eliminate leaders of Islamic Jihad; (2) Keep Hamas from entering the conflict; (3) Prevent a notable attack by Palestinian groups; and (4) Restore deterrence by signaling to Hamas, Hezbollah, and other regional foes that Israel will preemptively strike if threatened.

The IDF quickly achieved its primary objective by eliminating three leaders of Islamic Jihad, and strikes against other senior militants in the following days were an added success. Removing key leadership members disrupts planning and future attacks on Israeli targets. It is easier to replace tunnels and rockets than a commander with years of battle experience.

The IDF also achieved deterrence, at least partially. Islamic Jihad is unlikely to venture into another round of conflict in the near future without Hamas’ assistance. However, in recent years, the gap between military operations in the Gaza Strip appears to be shrinking. It has been less than a year since Operation Breaking Dawn when Israel launched a preemptive strike on the leadership of Islamic Jihad to thwart planned attacks. In 2021, Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem, prompting the launch of Operation Guardian of the Walls, and in 2019, Israel killed Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata in Operation Black Belt after months of repeated rocket fire toward Israel.

In the recent operation, the IDF largely denied Islamic Jihad any significant achievements. However, rockets fired at the Tel-Aviv area resulted in the killing of one person and a Gazan worker near the settlement of Shokeda.

According to the Israeli military, Islamic Jihad was thwarted by airstrikes on at least one occasion when it attempted to deploy an anti-tank-guided missile team at the Gaza border.

Islamic Jihad’s failure to achieve a notable strike became apparent when it published a false claim on May 13, saying it attacked an Israeli military position with an anti-tank guided missile causing casualties.

Following the claim of an attack on Israeli military personnel, a security source speaking to FDD’s Long War Journal denied the incident took place, adding that a mortar landed near a tank but did not cause damage.

The Israeli military achieved most of its objectives while denying Islamic Jihad and other armed Palestinian organizations a significant achievement in the fighting. The Israeli defense establishment can be satisfied with its recent performance; however, stronger, more formidable opponents like Hamas, Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed groups are fomenting chaos and will need to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Joe Truzman is an editor and senior research analyst at FDD's Long War Journal focused primarily on Palestinian armed groups and non-state actors in the Middle East.

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