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Palestinian Terror Groups: Palestine Islamic Jihad

PIJ Logo
            Founder: Fathi Shaqaqi
           Founded: 1979
Ziad al-Nakhalah
           Location: Gaza

Harakat al-Jihad al-Islami al-Filastini, better known as Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), was formed in 1979 by Islamic fundamentalist Fathi Shaqaqi and other radical Palestinian students in Egypt who had split from the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip whom they deemed too moderate. The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran influenced the group’s founder, Shaqaqi, who believed the liberation of Palestine would unite the Arab and Muslim world into a single great Islamic state.

Today, PIJ is committed to the creation of an Islamic Palestinian state and the destruction of Israel through jihad (holy war).

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, prior to the intifada, it carried out several terrorist attacks in the Gaza Strip. In August 1988, the faction`s leaders, Shaqaqi and `Abd al-`Aziz `Odah, were expelled to Lebanon, where Shaqaqi reorganized the faction, maintaining close contacts with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards unit stationed in Lebanon and with Hezbollah. Although several other factions of Palestinian Islamic Jihad were formed in the 1980s, the main faction remains the group founded by Shaqaqi. After the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords between Israeli and the Palestinians, Shaqaqi expanded the political connections of the organization to become a member of the new Syrian influenced Rejection Front.

PIJ and Hamas (The Islamic Resistance Movement), a separate Palestinian terrorist organization, were regarded as rivals in the Gaza Strip until after the foundation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994 when Hamas adopted the strategy suicide terrorist bombings. Since then, there has been some operational cooperation between the two organizations in carrying out attacks like the one in Beit-Lid, in February 1995, where two suicide bombers killed eight Israelis and wounded 50.

When PIJ leader Shaqaqi was killed in October 1995 in Malta, allegedly by Israeli agents, the PIJ position among Palestinian terrorist organizations dipped because his successor, Ramadan Abdallah Muhammad Shallah, who lived in the United States for several years, lacked Shaqaqi’s charisma and intellectual and organizational skills. That did not stop PIJ’s terror campaign, however, which included the March 1996 suicide bombing of the Dizengoff Center in downtown Tel Aviv, which killed 20 civilians and wounded more than 75, including two Americans.

PIJ claims first ever multi-barrel launch of rockets from Gaza (October 2011)

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 group was based in Damascus prior to the Syrian civil war and its financial backing came from there and Iran. PIJ also has offices in Beirut, Tehran and Khartoum. It has some influence in the Gaza Strip, mainly in the Islamic University, but not in a way that can endanger the dominant position of Hamas as the leading Islamic Palestinian organization. Unlike Hamas, PIJ has no social or political role in the PA.

Aside from Israel, PIJ also considers the United States an enemy because of its support for Israel. The PIJ also opposes moderate Arab governments that it believes have been tainted by Western secularism and has carried out attacks in Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt.

Since September 2000, PIJ has been responsible for scores of terrorist attacks, including dozens of suicide and car bombings, which have claimed the lives and wounded hundreds of innocent Israeli civilians.

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.”

PIJ attacks from 2005 through 2013 have been primarily rocket attacks aimed at southern Israeli cities, but have also included attacking Israeli targets with explosive devices, especially military patrols along the Israel-Gaza border. The U.S. Department of State believes PIJ’s strength to be less than 1,000 members though it receives complete financial assistance and military training from Iran. Despite its successes, PIJ remains a small movement and only enjoys the support of roughly 4-5% of the Palestinian population, mainly because it lacks the institutional network built by Hamas. This fact, however, enables Islamic Jihad to focus on its ideological goals and disregard wider political considerations.

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 percent. Two years later, with the help of Hezbollah, relations between Islamic Jihad and Iran were restored and money began to flow again.

In 2018, PIJ named Shallah’s deputy, Ziad al-Nakhalah, as its new leader. 

On November 12, 2019, Israel killed Baha Abu al-Ata, the senior leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. According to the Israeli government, he ordered attacks on Israeli civilians and IDF 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 reportedly on orders from PIJ Secretary-General Ziyad al-Nakhalah from his headquarters in Beirut.

Before a cease-fire went into effect on November 15, 2019, 58 Israelis were injured and 34 Palestinians, most members of Islamic Jihad and other Gaza terror groups, were killed in retaliatory strikes. More than 400 rockets were fired at Israel between November 12th and 15th. An estimated 90% of rockets heading toward residential areas were intercepted by the Iron Dome; 60% of those not intercepted fell in open areas where they caused neither injury nor damage.The attacks cost the Israeli economy $315 million.

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 detained by the Egyptians. 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 Abu Toameh, “Hamas wants to preserve the ceasefire understandings with Israel so as to remain in power. PIJ, on the other hand, wants to continue launching terror attacks against Israel…. to appease their patrons in Tehran, and, second, to scores points on the Palestinian street by showing that, unlike Hamas, they are not prepared to make any concessions to the ‘Zionist enemy.’” The leaders of Hamas were also warned if the group joined in attacks on Israel, they might become targets.

Co-founder Shallah, who was 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,” his successor al-Nakhalah said during the funeral.

Sources: Reuters;
Patterns of Global Terrorism:
United States Department of State;
The International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism;
Tel Aviv University - The Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies;
Elior Levy, “Iran's $100 million aid to Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” Ynet, (August 3, 2018);
Dov Lieber and Felicia Schwartz, “Israel Kills Islamic Jihad Leader, Prompting Gaza Rocket Attacks,” Wall Street Journal, (November 12, 2019);
“34 Palestinians killed, 58 Israelis injured in rocket attacks from Gaza and Israel this week,” JTA, November 14, 2019);
Khaled Abu Toameh, “Hamas’s Islamic Jihad Dilemma – Analysis,” Jerusalem Post, (November 13, 2019);
Zvi Bar’el, “Hamas Stopped Gaza Escalation This Time — but Israel Should Know There Are No Free Gifts,” Haaretz, (November 15, 2019);
Khaled Abu Toameh, Tovah Lazaroff, Anna Ahronheim, “Israel, Islamic Jihad agree on ceasefire, IDF confirms,” Jerusalem Post, (November 14, 2019);
“Israel-Gaza ceasefire holding despite rocket fire,” BBC, (November 14, 2019);
“Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader buried in Syria,” AP, (June 7, 2020).