The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terror organization is often in the business of “jihad now, not later,” an approach that has led to multiple deadly escalations between it and Israel in the Gaza Strip – even when this did not suit the immediate interests of Gaza’s Islamist rulers, Hamas.
However, PIJ has recently been making a concerted effort not to undermine Hamas’s rule, and has cooperated with Hamas’s decision to seek a tactical, unofficial period of calm. What remains unclear is just how long PIJ will continue to play along before reverting back to its traditional role of arsonist.
Col. (res.) David Hacham, a former Arab-affairs adviser to seven Israeli defense ministers, and a senior research associate at the Miryam Institute, told the Investigative Project on Terrorism that relations between PIJ and Hamas as more complex than meets the eye. On the one hand, he said, they are united by the common Islamist cause of seeking Israel’s destruction, and both are backed by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
On the other hand, Hamas “has a government role, and has to deal with a 2-million-strong population in Gaza. It has considerations to take into account that PIJ does not have to think about. PIJ is almost purely about jihad and terror,” said the former Israeli defense official.
This has led to multiple clashes and misunderstandings between the two organizations due to contrasting interests and tactical objectives. While PIJ seeks to act on its ideology without second thought, Hamas is the one that had to consider Israel’s retaliation against its regime and Gaza’s population.
However, Hamas and PIJ have made an effort in recent years to show Palestinians their joint efforts in a common command center in Gaza. PIJ has made more of an effort to align its activities with the interests and strategies of Hamas. “Still, differences could certainly surface in the future,” said Hacham.
In fact, PIJ is also making some efforts to hold a dialogue with non-jihadist Palestinian terror elements too.
It recently met with members of the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), according to a report printed by the Palestinian Al Quds newspaper.
The meeting, which was apparently was held online, included PIJ Secretary General Ziad Nakhleh and senior PFLP leaders in the territories and outside of them. But a deeper meeting of the minds may be difficult to achieve.
The meeting is part of PIJ’s latest efforts to coordinate more closely with non-Islamist armed Palestinian groups, as part of an emphasis on the common goal of fighting Israel, said Hacham.
“This goal of fighting Israel gives them a joint basis,” Hacham said. On the other hand, the deep ideological divisions between PFLP, which was co-founded in 1967 by Palestinian Christian Marxist left-wing nationalist George Habash, and PIJ, which was co-founded by Palestinian former Muslim Brotherhood member Fathi Shiqaqi in 1981, will not be bridged by one meeting.
“One is an Islamist radical terrorist fundamentalist organization, with a Palestinian nationalist orientation, and the second is a secular-atheist terror organization, and is not religious at all,” he said. Still, the meeting between them indicates that their commitment to Israel’s downfall creates a basis for dialogue.
PFLP is the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)’s second-largest faction after Fatah, while PIJ is the second largest terror organization in the Gaza Strip, after Hamas.
Nakhleh, a Gaza native who was expelled by Israel in the 1980s during the First Intifada, is based in Damascus and Beirut, and regularly visits Tehran. He holds the most extremist ideological stances regarding Israel and the objective of destroying it in favor of setting up an Islamic state on its ruins, Hacham said.
PIJ’s has approximately 10,000 operatives in the Gaza Strip, compared to Hamas’s 30,000 armed operatives in the enclave.
“PIJ also has a branch in the West Bank,” said Hacham, “where it is less strong than in Gaza and where it has a smaller influence.” Nevertheless, PIJ has a long track record of launching terror attacks from the West Bank.
“For PIJ, terrorism is the exclusive tool for promoting its objective, which is destroying Israel and setting up an Islamic state, based on Sharia-law, in its place from the river to the sea,” Hacham stated.
Hacham, who spent eight years in the Gaza Strip as an adviser on Arab affairs to successive commanders of the IDF’s Southern Command and Israeli Coordinators of Government Activities in the Territories, described PIJ as an “Iranian front organization. This is a small, militant organization, which can nevertheless launch painful terror attacks. Its operatives train in Iran. It is financially supported by Tehran and its ideological motivation comes from Iran,” he stated. “It is often described as an Iranian puppet.”
PIJ sees the Khomeinist Islamic revolution of 1979 as a successful model for government and an ideal to strive for. And yet, PIJ is Sunni, not Shi’ite, making it a unique Iranian proxy, which toes Iran’s line significantly more loyally than Hamas. Hamas retains independent decision-making despite receiving generous Iranian funding and military support.
The organization also operates under the auspices of the Syrian Assad regime, and receives support from it as well, allowing it to be active on Syrian territory.
In one of its most notorious attacks, aimed at torpedoing the Oslo peace process, PIJ sent two suicide bombers to attack a group of soldiers in Beit Lid Junction, central Israel, killing 20 and injuring 68. In 2003, PIJ conducted a suicide bombing on a restaurant in Haifa, killing 21 people, including children, and injuring 60.
The First Palestinian Jihadist Faction
Shiqaqi founded PIJ in 1981, six years before Hamas came into being in 1987, during the first Intifada. Shiqaqi returned to Gaza from Egypt, where he had been studying medicine and was influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization.
“While in Cairo, he learned the ways of Egyptian jihadists,” said Hacham.
Shiqaqi took on the role of operational leader, while PIJ also adopted a spiritual leader – Sheikh Abdul Aziz Awda – whose current location is unknown.
Hacham recalled his own personal meetings with Shiqaqi and with Awda, from whom he learned much about PIJ’s uncompromising hatred and extremism. He also learned about the background and principles of the PIJ, and the way it came into being in the Gaza Strip.
“During our meeting at an Israeli security facility, Shiqaqi spoke at length about everything. He exposed the tenets and concepts of political Islam,” said Hacham.
“Today, it has developed some minor social-economic activity in the West Bank and Gaza, but far less broad than that of Hamas. As for Awda – his hatred of Israel is prominent in the most fundamental manner.”
“Hamas, alongside its military-terrorist wing, has a social-religious branch, made up of professional associations, charities, welfare activity, and mosque activity (sermons). This is all part of dawah (spreading religious ideology),” said Hacham. “PIJ has very little beyond an agenda of armed conflict against Israel.”
In 1988, Israel expelled Shiqaqi and Awda to southern Lebanon. Seven years later, in 1995, Shiqaqi was returning from a visit to Libya, stopping off at Malta on his way back to Lebanon, when he was assassinated, reportedly by a Mossad team.
He was replaced by Ramadan Shallah, a PIJ co-founder, who became secretary-general. Shallah, a Gazan who taught at the University of South Florida between 1993 and 1995, was based in Damascus, and directed the organization’s many terror activities in Gaza and the West Bank.
Nakhleh took over from Shallah in 2018, remotely commanding from Damascus the only other organization other than Hamas that has its own sizeable rocket arsenal in Gaza.
The organization received a significant boost on Sept. 6, when five PIJ members and one Fatah member escaped from Israel’s Gilboa Prison.
Although Israeli security forces recaptured them all, the incident allowed PIJ to boast that it had breached the “Israeli security wall,” and to stress its message that perseverance and dedication to the jihadist mission can lead to achievements against the militarily superior Israel, said Hacham.
Meanwhile, in Israeli security prisons, PIJ prisoners, together Hamas, are often the most active in stoking up disorder and going on hunger strikes.
“The escape pushed Hamas to the corner to some extent,” said Hacham. “PIJ consolidated its public power after that escape, and secured its status in the Palestinian street as the element that is at the forefront of the resistance against Israel. Out of fear that it will lose its dominant position as the head of the resistance camp, Hamas tried to set up an organized terror infrastructure in the West Bank’s central and northern regions, in order to prove its abilities,” he added.
“In its activities in Gaza, PIJ is currently cautious to avoid embarrassing Hamas, knowing that if it harms Hamas’s interests and challenges it, the cost it would pay would be painful,” said Hacham. “Hence it is avoiding independent action, and acknowledges Hamas’s leading position. But there is no guarantee that this will last,” he said, warning that PIJ could in future return to its position of setting Gaza on fire.
As if to illustrate Hacham’s warning, PIJ announced last Thursday that its armed operatives are in a state of “general alert” as hundreds of the organization’s imprisoned members began a hunger strike in Israeli prisons.
“We announce a state of general alert among the ranks of our fighters. We are completely prepared and at the ready,” the PIJ’s armed wing, the Al-Quds Brigades said. PIJ Secretary-General Nakhaleh wasted little time in warning that his organization would be prepared to go to war over the issue of its prisoners.
“Palestinian Islamic Jihad will not leave its members in Zionist prisons to be victims at the hands of the enemy. Accordingly, we will stand with them and support them with everything we have, even if this means we must go to war for their sake,” he said, demonstrating just how fragile PIJ’s willingness to hold its fire in Gaza really is.
Reprinted with author’s permission from The Investigative Project on Terrorism