Harakat al-Jihad al-Islami al-Filastini, better known as Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), is the most radical terrorist organization operating in the Palestinian arena. It was formed in 1981 by Islamic fundamentalist Fathi Shiqaqi, a physician from Rafah, and Shaykh ‘Abd al-’Aziz ‘Awda, a preacher from the Jabalia refugee camp.
The two men, who had studied at Zaqaziq University, a center of Islamic radicalism in Egypt, rejected the approach of the mainstream Islamic movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, to the Palestine question. The Brotherhood maintained that the Muslim world should deal with Israel only after curing its own spiritual and religious ills by returning the masses to Islam and revitalizing Islam. Once Muslim unity was achieved, the Muslim Brethren believed, Israel’s destruction would be quickly accomplished. By contrast, Shiqaqi argued that Israel, by its very existence, was a source of moral and spiritual corruption that prevented Muslims from remedying the malaise of their society. He believed the liberation of Palestine would unite the Arab and Muslim world into a single great Islamic state. Today, PIJ is committed to creating an Islamic Palestinian state and destroying Israel through jihad (holy war).
The PIJ’s ideology blended Palestinian nationalist ideas with themes drawn from three other sources: the doctrine of the Muslim Brethren, patterns of activity of the militant Islamist groups in Egypt, and, uniquely among Sunni movements, the teachings of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Shi`i leader of the Islamic revolution in Iran.
According to PIJ, a proper reading of the Quran and an understanding of history leads to the conclusion that Palestine is the focus of the religio-historical confrontation between the Muslims and their eternal enemies, the Jews. The Muslims represent the forces of truth (haq), while the Jews (and Christians) embody the forces of apostasy (batil). In the context of this confrontation, the Palestine problem is the core of a Western offensive that began with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and reached its climax in 1918 with the Ottoman Empire's disintegration, which had symbolized Islamic unity. According to this view, Palestine was always the focus of Western imperialist designs and was meant to serve as a launch pad to take over other Muslim territories.
Since the Jewish presence in Palestine symbolizes Muslim inferiority in the modern age, commitment to Palestine cannot be framed in the narrow confines of Palestinian nationalism. Instead, it is an essentially Islamic issue and is the key “to every serious strategy aimed at the liberation and unification of the Islamic nation.” Herein lays the PIJ’s ideological innovation. The jihad in Palestine entails a commitment to two interrelated goals: the liberation of Palestine and pan-Islamic revival. Jihad is the only way to liberate Palestine since Muslim victory and the elimination of Israel are foreordained by God’s words in the Koran.
Shiqaqi praised Ayatollah Khomeini for being the first Muslim leader to give Palestine its proper place in his Islamic ideology. In addition, the Islamic revolution in Iran was a significant victory in the struggle against Western attempts to exclude Islam from politics. It was uniquely successful in establishing a state founded on Islamic law. Therefore, the PIJ, alone among Sunni Islamist movements, saw Khomeini as the rightful leader of the entire Muslim world.
The Egyptian government expelled the PIJ to the Gaza Strip after learning of their close relations with radical Egyptian students who assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Still, PIJ members remained active in Egypt, attacking a tour bus in Egypt in February 1990 that killed 11 people, including nine Israelis. PIJ agents were arrested in Egypt in September 1991 while attempting to enter the country to conduct terrorism.
The PIJ began its terrorist campaign against Israel in the 1980s. In 1987, before the intifada, it conducted several terrorist attacks in the Gaza Strip. Shiqaqi was arrested in 1986 and deported to Lebanon. ‘Awda was expelled in 1988. Shiqaqi was a charismatic leader and reorganized the faction, maintaining close contact with Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards unit stationed in Lebanon.
Iran became the movement’s major financial sponsor, and PIJ became an instrument of Iranian policy in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Hezbollah provided training facilities and logistical aid and helped PIJ expand its network in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
While PIJ preceded Hamas (established in 1988), it remained the smaller of the two movements. Hamas became a mass movement with a political branch grounded in a widespread network of religious and welfare institutions. By contrast, PIJ remained a revolutionary vanguard of several hundred activists. During the first intifada, the PIJ sought cooperation or unity with Hamas, but the latter was reluctant to move in this direction.
PIJ and Hamas rejected the 1993 Oslo Accords as a betrayal of Palestinian and Islamic rights. Nevertheless, they remained rivals until the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994, when they launched attacks against Israeli targets in a “race” (Shiqaqi’s word) to halt the peace process.
Hamas adopted the strategy of ordering suicide bombings in Israel, and the two organizations began to cooperate more, as in the attacks in Beit-Lid in 1995, where two suicide bombers killed eight Israelis and wounded 50.
Shiqaqi continued to lead the movement from exile until his assassination by Israeli agents in Malta in October 1995. His successor, Dr. Ramadan ‘Abdallah Shalah, had lived in the United States for several years and lacked Shiqaqi’s charisma and intellectual and organizational skills. Shalah set up his headquarters in Damascus. PIJ also has offices in Beirut, Tehran, and Khartoum. It has some influence in the Gaza Strip, mainly in the Islamic University, but does not challenge Hamas’s dominant position.
On October 8, 1997, the United States Department of State officially designated PIJ as a Foreign Terrorist Organization for its continued use of terrorist tactics in fighting against Israel.
The PIJ also considers the United States an enemy because it supports Israel. The PIJ also opposes moderate Arab governments that it believes have been tainted by Western secularism and has mounted attacks in Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt.
By 2000, PIJ could take credit for killing several dozen Israelis, mostly civilians. The outbreak of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation in September 2000 gave a boost to the PIJ. Along with Hamas, it claimed that jihad was the only way to drive Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza as the first phase in the complete liberation of Palestine. It enjoyed total freedom of action and some logistical support from PA officials. On the operational level, PIJ activists joined with Hamas and Fatah activists in attacking Israeli targets. Concurrently, PIJ competed with the two other movements to organize more daring and devastating operations to enhance prestige.
On December 22, 2001, despite a declaration by Hamas to halt suicide bombings inside Israel in response to a crackdown on militants by Yasser Arafat, PIJ vowed to continue its terror campaign. PIJ’s representative in Lebanon, Abu Imad Al Rifai, told Reuters, “Our position is to continue. We have no other choice. We are not willing to compromise.”
While it refused to recognize the Palestinian Authority as a legitimate government and did not participate in the 2006 PA elections, PIJ did not challenge the PA politically like Hamas. However, it was easier for the PA to take strong measures against PIJ as the smaller organization. It closed al-Istiqlal, the PIJ newspaper in Gaza, and arrested some low-level activists.
The U.S. Department of State believes PIJ’s strength to be less than 1,000 members with the support of only 4-5% of the Palestinian population, mainly because it lacks the institutional network built by Hamas. This fact, however, enables PIJ to focus on its ideological goals and disregard broader political considerations.
Following the October 7 terrorist attacks on Israel, the United States, in concert with the United Kingdom, sanctioned Akram al-Ajouri, the PIJ Deputy Secretary General and leader of its militant wing, the Al-Quds Brigade, and seven individuals and two entities that have provided support to or acted on behalf of Hamas or PIJ. The sanctions announcement noted that “Iran has trained PIJ fighters to produce and develop missiles in Gaza while also funding groups that provide financial support to PIJ-affiliated fighters.”
In 2018, PIJ named Shalah’s deputy, Ziad Nakhalah, its new leader. His headquarters were in Lebanon, where it would be more difficult for Israel to assassinate.
On November 12, 2019, Israel killed Baha Abu al-Ata, the senior leader of the PIJ in Gaza. According to Khaled Abu Toameh, al-Ata had spent some time in Cairo discussing the preservation of the ceasefire negotiated earlier in the year. As an incentive to keep the peace, Egypt released more than 80 Palestinians, many of whom were members of PIJ. The group subsequently decided, however, on a strategy of attacking Israel periodically to prove it had not agreed to the ceasefire. This worried Hamas, which did not want to provoke a confrontation with Israel, and pressure was exerted on PIJ to keep the peace.
According to the Israeli government, al-Ata ordered attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers and sought to disrupt the cease-fire between Israel and Gaza. He was believed to be planning imminent attacks, which included preparing squads for infiltration of Israel, sniper attacks, booby-trapped drones, and rocket fire. Following his assassination, PIJ launched hundreds of rockets into Israel.
Before a cease-fire went into effect on November 15, 2019, 58 Israelis were injured, and 34 Palestinians, most members of PIJ and Hamas, were killed in retaliatory strikes. More than 400 rockets were fired at Israel between November 12th and 15th. The Iron Dome intercepted an estimated 90% of rockets heading toward residential areas; 60% of those not shot down fell in open spaces where they caused neither injury nor damage. The attacks cost the Israeli economy $315 million.
Shalah, on the U.S. “most wanted list” of terrorist suspects, died in Damascus on June 6, 2020. “We pledge to continue the route of resistance until we liberate Palestine with the allies in Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah,” Nakhalah said during the funeral.
PIJ developed its relationship with Iran in the 1990s when it had fighters in Lebanon and developed a partnership with Hezbollah that led to it receiving arms and training. In 2000, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei met with PIJ’s general secretary, Ramadan Shalah, and offered to increase PIJ funds by 70% to cover the cost of recruiting Palestinians for suicide missions. Iran also paid PIJ cash bonuses for successful attacks, and the IRGC created training camps for Hamas, PIJ, and other terrorists to learn how to use missiles and antiaircraft rockets.
Iran provided funds to PIJ until the end of 2015. Angered by PIJ’s unwillingness to support the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, Tehran cut its aid by 90%. A PIJ delegation traveled to Iran in May 2016, the first such visit in two years, and left with a promise that it would receive $70 million annually. In 2018, PIJ reportedly received $30 million from Iran.
When Hamas and PIJ bombarded Israel with rockets in May 2021, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said Iran “did not hold back with money, weapons, and technical support.” PIJ official Ramez Al-Halabi confirmed that Iran was supporting the group “with weapons, money, and food.”
Two years later, PIJ leader Ziyad Nakhalah said, “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 thirty years.”
After Hamas took credit for firing six rockets at Jerusalem on May 10, 2021, Israel responded with airstrikes throughout the Gaza Strip. PIJ subsequently joined Hamas in firing more than 1,000 rockets into Israel. When Hamas and PIJ began firing missiles, there was no particular tension along the Gaza border. The terrorists started their attacks on the pretext that they were defending the al-Aqsa Mosque and responding to the possible eviction of Palestinian families illegally living on Jewish property in Sheikh Jarrah.
Israel’s Operation Guardian of the Walls targeted Hamas and PIJ terrorists, rocket launchers, tunnels, and arsenals. Approximately 680 rockets fired by Hamas and PIJ landed inside Gaza, causing many civilian casualties. A few days after the ceasefire, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar admitted 80 of the dead were terrorists –57 from Hamas and 22 from PIJ.
On August 1, 2022, Israel arrested Bassam al-Saadi, the PIJ commander in Judea and Samaria. The phone of Nakhalah was hacked, and Israel learned the PIJ wanted Iran to provide millions of dollars to support a revenge attack. Iran agreed, and PIJ planned sniper attacks, the launch of Kornet anti-tank missiles at Israeli vehicles near the Gaza border, and an assault on a civilian bus. Israel launched a preemptive attack – Operation Breaking Dawn – on August 5, 2022.
The IDF hit 170 targets during the fighting, destroying 45 long-range rocket launchers and 17 observation points along the Gaza border. Israeli forces also apprehended suspected members of PIJ in the West Bank.
PIJ launched an estimated 1,100 rockets in the 56 hours of fighting; at least 200 malfunctioned and exploded within the Gaza Strip, and the Iron Dome intercepted 380. PIJ admitted that 12 of its fighters were killed.
Israel said it killed “the entire senior security echelon of PIJ’s military wing in Gaza.” Nevertheless, Nakhalah called the results of the fighting “a historic achievement.”
Hamas pressured PIJ to accept a ceasefire. On August 7, both sides accepted an Egyptian-mediated truce.
As violence escalated following the operation, Hamas and PIJ were reportedly offering about $200 to shoot an Israeli if a video of the attack is posted on TikTok.
Following the death of a PIJ hunger striker in an Israeli prison, the group fired 100 rockets into Israel on May 2, 2023. Israel, ostensibly in response to the death of PIJ’s Khader Adnan from a hunger strike in prison. A week later, the IDF launched Operation Shield and Arrow to kill the senior officials responsible for firing rockets and launching attacks against Israeli citizens. The operation began on May 9.
Israel responded with some airstrikes but waited until May 9 to unleash its full fury on the group. Operation Shield and Arrow targeted senior PIJ officials responsible for firing rockets and launching attacks against Israeli citizens. In near-simultaneous strikes, Israeli forces killed Tarek Az Aldin, the coordinator of terrorism in the West Bank, Khalil Bahitini, the commander of the al-Quds Brigades in the northern Gaza Strip, and Jihad Ghanem, secretary of the movement’s military council. Three other senior commanders – Ali Ghassan Ghali, Ahmad Abu Deka, and Iyad al-Hassa – were killed later.
A total of 1,469 rockets were launched into Israel during Operation Shield and Arrow; 291 fell in Gaza; Iron Dome intercepted 472. The IDF struck 700 targets, including mortar and rocket launchers. In addition to the leaders, 15 other terrorists were killed. Israel also arrested 25 members of PIJ in the West Bank. Weeks earlier, the Shin Bet foiled an attempt by a PIJ cell to produce rockets and a launcher in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank.
PIJ boasted of its achievements and thanked Iran, Hezbollah, and Qatar for their assistance. Iran reportedly encouraged PIJ to fight and offered $5 million for each day it continued.
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