Tehran-backed Islamic Jihad official says Gaza militants won't be drawn into Iran-U.S. conflict

“Our main mission is how to liberate our land, how to free our people. We are not part of an international conflict,” a group official said.

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By Keir Simmons

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Islamic Jihad militants will not be drawn into a war between Iran and the United States, a leader of the Tehran-backed Palestinian group told NBC News.

“We are not an army and we will not intervene in any international conflict,” senior Islamic Jihad official Khaled al-Batsh said when asked whether the group would fire missiles at Israel if Iran instructed it to.

“Our main mission is how to liberate our land, how to free our people. We are not part of an international conflict,” he added during an interview in Gaza City earlier this week.

Any conflict would be “between two big countries, and I don’t think there will be war between Iran and America,” he said, adding that he did not know how much aid Iran provides his group.

Iran has for decades supported Islamic Jihad, the second-largest militant group in the Palestinian enclave whose strength has been steadily increasing. It and Hamas, which controls Gaza, vow to destroy Israel and are considered terrorist groups by the U.S.

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Israeli security officials have warned that Iran could “activate” Islamic Jihad and other groups it backs to attack Israel. According to a report by the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, Iran sends hundreds of millions of dollars every year to groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Iran also offers military aid including weapons deliveries and training, according to the study.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad have fought in a series of conflicts with Israel since Jewish settlements in Gaza were dismantled in 2005, and Hamas seized control from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority two years later.

The latest round of fighting broke out in early May with militants shooting hundreds of rockets into Israel, and Israeli airstrikes hitting 350 targets inside Gaza. The violence killed 27 in Gaza — both militants and civilians — and four Israeli civilians.

Iran-U.S. tensions have also worsened dramatically under President Donald Trump, who has withdrawn the U.S. from a landmark Obama-era nuclear pact and reimposed punishing economic sanctions. The administration has previously acknowledged that Iran was living up to the agreement, but alleges it also gave the Islamic republic cover to pursue its ballistic weapons program and deepen its regional influence.

In recent weeks, the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier strike group and bomber aircraft to the region. It is also moving a Patriot missile battery to an unnamed country in the area.

On Friday Trump said the U.S. would send an additional 1,500 troops to the region.

Gaza, meanwhile, is lurching toward total humanitarian collapse after more than a decade controlled by Hamas and under a punishing Israeli and Egyptian blockade, aid organizations warn.

The United Nations estimates unemployment among its 2 million residents is above 50 percent, and the population of some 2 million suffers from chronic electricity outages, undrinkable water and rising poverty rates. Some 75 percent of Gazans are refugees or descended from refugees driven from their homes after the creation of the state of Israel.

Al-Batsh also rejected U.S. attempts to negotiate an end to the decadeslong Israeli-Palestinian impasse. He described Trump as a “thug” and rejected his administration’s so-called “deal of the century” aimed at ending the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

He described the announcement last weekend of a fundraising workshop next month as an attempt to bribe the Palestinians.

“Our land is not for sale,” he said. “‘The peace plan called the ‘deal of the century’ is rejected by all of us.”

Palestinian leaders across the board have spurned the efforts led by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.

F. Brinley Bruton , The Associated Press, Reuters, Lawahez Jabari and Carlo Angerer contributed.