By Tzvi Kahn, May 25, 2023
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may need a crash course in basic Middle East geopolitics. In a statement issued as Israel faced legions of Palestinian rockets fired toward its territory this month, Ottawa rightly affirmed the Jewish state’s “right to defend its security from terrorist attacks” by the terrorist group Islamic Jihad. Yet the statement contained a curious omission. It failed to attribute responsibility where it truly belongs: the Islamic Republic of Iran, the chief backer, funder, and military supplier of Islamic Jihad.
It was a missed opportunity. As a proxy of Iran, Islamic Jihad has the same objective as its patron: the destruction of Israel and the termination of Western political, military, and ideological influence in the Middle East. Islamic Jihad’s manifesto repudiates “any peaceful solution to the Palestinian cause” and affirms “the Jihad solution and the martyrdom style as the only choice for liberation.” The United States, the manifesto asserts, is the “Great-Satan.”
Canada designated Islamic Jihad as a terrorist group pursuant to Canada’s Criminal Code in 2002, and for good reason. It’s “one of the most violent Palestinian terrorist groups,” Ottawa explained, and “was among the first to use suicide bomb attacks against Israel.” In the 1990s and 2000s, during the height of the Oslo peace process and its eventual collapse, Israel saw waves of attacks by Islamic Jihad. In 1996, for example, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a Tel Aviv shopping mall, claiming the lives of 13 Israelis and wounding about 125. In 2005, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive device outside a Tel Aviv nightclub, killing five Israelis and wounding some 50.
In the Gaza conflict that erupted this month, Islamic Jihad fired 1,468 rockets toward the Jewish state, according to the Israeli military. In the May 2021 war between Israel and Gaza, Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups fired more than 4,000 rockets toward Israel. These projectiles deliberately targeted civilian areas. In many cases, the cowardly perpetrators tried to deter Israeli counterattacks by using Palestinian civilians as human shields.
Islamic Jihad’s violence takes inspiration from Iran. Founded in 1981, the terrorist group has long regarded Tehran’s repressive Islamist regime as the exemplar of an eventual Palestinian state that would replace Israel. In 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution, Islamic Jihad’s founder, Fathi Shikaki, published a book that voiced support for the Islamic Republic of Iran’s founding father and first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The publication approvingly quotes a fatwa issued by Khomeini stating that eliminating Israel constitutes a religious obligation.
Tehran has helped Islamic Jihad achieve this goal by providing the group with robust military and financial support. In 2002, 18 months after the second intifada began, U.S. and Israeli officials told The New York Times that Iran provided Islamic Jihad with millions of dollars in cash bonuses for each attack against the Jewish state. Today, Iran provides Islamic Jihad with tens of millions of dollars annually.
Last month, Islamic Jihad leader Ziyad Nakhalah said that if “Israel demolishes a house in the West Bank today — it is Iran that pays” to rebuild it. “Also, the weapons that the Palestinians use for fighting come from Iran — the Iranians either pay for these weapons or provide them. This has been going on for 30 years. If I calculate all the money the Iranians have paid the Palestinians in these 30 years — it’s billions of dollars.”
The Canadian government surely knows — or should know — all this. Yet Ottawa has said nothing about Iran’s support for Islamic Jihad since the latest Gaza flare-up began. That’s unfortunate, since Prime Minister Trudeau has pledged to hold Tehran accountable for an egregious crime against Canada: the 2020 downing of a Ukrainian airline as it took off from a Tehran airport, killing all 176 people on board, including 85 Canadian citizens and permanent residents. In 2021, an Ontario judge ruled that the shootdown of flight PS752 was “intentional” and an “act of terrorism.”
Trudeau has failed to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which executed the shootdown and manages Tehran’s operations in Gaza and elsewhere in the Middle East, as a terrorist group pursuant to Canada’s Criminal Code. That would be the most impactful step Ottawa could take to punish Iran, yet Trudeau, for reasons that remain unclear, continues to resist calls to act.
Trudeau doesn’t seem to grasp that Israel and Canada are fighting the same war — and that the IRGC and Islamic Jihad constitute two sides of the same coin. Tehran facilitated Islamic Jihad’s rocket volleys against Israel for the same reason the IRGC shot down a Ukrainian plane: Both attacks seek to terrorize and defeat Iran’s Israeli and Western adversaries. And both attacks are the product of Tehran’s radical Islamist creed.
Tzvi Kahn is a research fellow and senior editor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.