The Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine

The Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine

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The Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine

The idea of founding the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine (PIJ) was first posed in the 1970s. Palestinian university students in Egypt engaged in intellectual conversations about the centrality of the Palestinian issue to Islam and the Islamist movement and possible ways to start an armed movement that would take Islam as its guide in its struggle to liberate Palestine from Zionist occupation. Most notable among these students was Fathi Shiqaqi, a medical student at Zaqaziq University, who had been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip before enrolling in the university.

The nascent core from which the PIJ developed was probably formed in 1980. Shiqaqi explained the reasons for its founding: 

It began as an intellectual discussion among a group of religious, educated Palestinian youth while they were students in Egypt in the latter half of the 1970s. Some of them were part of the [Muslim] Brotherhood, but not the majority. This intellectual discussion delved into questions of politics, ideology and methodology, and grew into a [broader] political environment. The initial core that launched the Jihad grew out of here, in Egypt, while we were still students … we worked to create an atmosphere to rally people around a new Islamist school of thought, one that was enlightened and fresh, and at the same time, combatant.  . . . We saw there were nationalists without Islam, and Islamists without Palestine. The Islamic Jihad Movement came as a solution to this problem, born out of our awareness of Islam and the Quran, as well as of history and reality.

The founders of PIJ found inspiration in the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which showed clearly in Shiqaqi’s book titled Khomeini: The Islamic and Alternative Solution. They were opposed to the traditional Islamist mindset, which believed that Palestine would only be liberated after the establishment of an Islamic state, and held it responsible for the inability of Islamist youth to actively participate in the liberation struggle. By creating the PIJ, they transformed the model of political Islam in the occupied Palestinian territories from the Islamist model of the Muslim Brotherhood to one of “jihadist Islam.”

Fathi Shiqaqi returned to Palestine in early November 1981 after graduating from medical school. He teamed up with his friends who had returned before him and they began to organize the movement in the occupied territories, particularly in Gaza. Shiqaqi worked as a doctor for two years in the Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem and became leader of the PIJ, which started its political life in mosques and universities, active at the level of advocacy and propaganda. Subsequently, it began to prepare to take up arms, and its secret cells launched armed action in 1984. Shiqaqi had been arrested by the Israeli occupation authorities in 1983 and spent eleven months in jail. After his release, he settled in Gaza and started work as a pediatrician. He was arrested once again in 1986, and sentenced to four years effective imprisonment, with an additional suspended sentence of five years, for the charge of being involved in military activities, incitement against the Israeli occupation and bringing weapons into the Gaza Strip. Before he finished serving his sentence, the first intifada erupted. The Israeli military authorities removed him from prison on 1 August 1988 and expelled him immediately out of Palestine, on the pretext that he was one of its main organizers. He was first deported to Lebanon, and took refuge in Beirut, after which he moved to Damascus, which became his organizational headquarters. 

To its own followers, the PIJ defined itself as “an independent, grassroots Islamist movement engaged in jihad. Its ideological basis is grounded in Islam, its means of operation combines grassroots and revolutionary work with armed jihad and its goal is the liberation of Palestine from Zionist occupation.” The movement emphasized the Palestinian cause as “the most important issue in the Islamic world at this stage of its history,” and that to fight for it would be the gateway to achieving the goals of the broader Islamist movement. From the PIJ’s point of view, the centrality of the Palestinian cause and its particular character spring from the role Israel plays in perpetuating “the fragmentation that exists on the soil of the Islamic homeland,” “the looting of [its] wealth,” and  as “a watchman for the benefit of global colonialism and imperiousness led by the United States. This role is what makes Israel into “a real danger to all the sons of the Islamic nation [umma],” and “to all the world’s downtrodden.” The movement saw the Muslim and Arab masses as embodying “the true depth of our [Palestinian] people in their jihad against the Zionist entity” and considered the battle to liberate Palestine to be “the battle of the entire Islamic nation, and in which it must participate with all its material and spiritual force and resources. The Palestinian people and the mujahideen [fighters] for the cause of Palestine are the umma’s vanguard in the battle of liberation, and upon them falls the heaviest burden to continue the struggle, until the entire umma can rise to fulfil its role in history: to wage the ultimate and decisive battle for the land of Palestine.”

Some sources indicate that the PIJ was able to attract many of the rank-and-file of Fatah and other factions in the PLO to join it, especially inside Israeli prisons. When the first intifada broke out in late 1987, the movement expanded its presence in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, and also managed to make inroads into the Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon. Its military activities took on a more organized character; it formed a military wing called “the al-Quds Brigades” that carried out dozens of operations that ranged from shootings, bomb attacks, ambushes and planting explosive devices to suicide attacks. Hundreds of PIJ activists have been assassinated, imprisoned, or exiled. Israel assassinated a number of its political and military leaders and cadres, including Hani Abed, who was assassinated in Gaza on 2 November 1994, and Mahmoud al-Khawaja, one of the founders of the movement’s military wing in Gaza, assassinated on 22 June 1995. Then, on 26 November, a unit from the Israeli Mossad assassinated the movement’s founder Fathi Shiqaqi in Malta, while he was returning to Damascus from a visit to Libya. His corpse was transported to Damascus, where he was laid to rest and his funeral procession in Yarmuk refugee camp was attended by thousands of Palestinians.

After the second intifada erupted at the end of September 2000, the PIJ escalated its military operations. In response, the Israeli occupation targeted the commanders of its military apparatus and successfully assassinated a number of them, including Anwar Hamran, assassinated in Nablus on 11 December 2000; Mahmoud Atwa Abdelaal, assassinated in Rafah on 2 April 2001; Iyad Hardan, assassinated in Jenin, on 5 April 2001; Khalid al-Dahdouh, assassinated in Gaza City on 1 March 2006; and Hussam Jaradat, assassinated in Jenin refugee camp on 23 August 2006. 

Concerning its political positions, the PIJ opposed the peace initiative that was adopted by the PLO during the nineteenth general meeting of the Palestinian National Council, held in Algiers in mid-November 1988. It saw the PLO’s acceptance of UN Security Council Resolution 242 as conceding “a crucial part of Palestine,” one that shifted the struggle “from [one] with the enemy to a fight among Palestinians themselves,” and it described the strategy being followed by the PLO leadership as akin to “political suicide.” The PIJ also opposed the Madrid Peace Conference in Fall 1991 and any Palestinian participation in it. It contributed in September 1992 to the establishment of the coalition of 10 Palestinian groups that opposed a political settlement, and then firmly rejected the Oslo Agreement (September 1993), boycotting the legislative and presidential elections held by the Palestinian Authority (January 1996). It abstained from participating in PA institutions and has continued to call for Islamist and (secular) nationalist forces to be united in their struggle against the Zionist occupation.

Currently, the PIJ is the second strongest organization in the Gaza Strip after Hamas in terms of military strength and popular influence. Although the two groups are in agreement on many goals and principles, having signed a “brotherhood and cooperation” pact in 1992, competition for control between them has not always been free of clashes. 

The PIJ has established special relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran and considers the Islamic revolution a model to follow. It has also strong relations with Lebanese Hizballah and with the Syrian government. While its military operations were previously focused on targeting Israeli military personnel and sites, after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza it began firing rockets on Israeli towns and cities located within the “Gaza Belt,” in response to Israeli army attacks and incursions. The movement has declared that it possesses thousands of rockets and claims that it has the capability to target cities in the heart of Israel.

Fathi Shiqaqi was succeeded by Ramadan Abdallah Shalah, who remained as head of the movement until late September 2018, when Ziad Nakhale was elected to succeed him. After Nakhale was elected as general secretary, Daoud Shihab, the movement’s spokesperson, asserted in a press conference that the PIJ “continues to uphold the same positions, and continues to strive to achieve the same goals for which it was created.” Resistance would remain its first priority, and “the Islamic Jihad’s weapons are a matter of principle that are not up for bargain and will not be renounced.”

Selected Bibliography: 

Abu-Amr, Ziad. Islamic Fundamentalism in the West Bank and Gaza: Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Alhaj, Wissam, Dot-Pouillard, Nicolas and Rébillard, Eugénie. De la Théologie à la Libération?: Histoire du Jihad islamique palestinien. Paris: La Découverte, 2014.

Batsh, Khalid. “Between Hamas and the PA: An Interview with Jihad’s Khalid Al-Batsh”. Journal of Palestine Studies. vol. 42, no 2. (Winter 2013): 61-70.

Bröning, Michael. Political Parties in Palestine: Leadership and Thought. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Shallah, Ramadan. “Interview with Ramadan Shallah (Part I): Israel at a Crossroads--Unable to Vanquish Resistance or Negotiate Peace”. Journal of Palestine Studies. vol. 44, no. 2 (Winter 2015): 52-62.

Shallah, Ramadan. “Interview with Ramadan Shallah (Part II): Palestinian Resistance - A Reexamination”. Journal of Palestine Studies. vol. 44, no. 3 (Spring 2015): 39-48