On 9 May 2023, explosions lit up the sky over Gaza City as a series of air strikes launched by Israel killed three leaders of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). The attack was part of Operation Shield and Arrow (OSA) ordered by Prime Minister Netanyahu as a retaliatory campaign against the PIJ, which launched on 2 May 2023 a series of rockets targeting Israel after the death in Israeli custody of Khader Adnan. As tension kept mounting, Egypt, through complicated behind-the-scenes diplomacy, managed to broker a brittle truce between Israel and the PIJ on 13 May 2023.
All too overshadowed by the cumbersome fame of Hamas, the PIJ was the first Islamic resistance group within the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank. Over a timeframe from the 1980s to more recent years, the article seeks to shed light on the temporal trajectory of the PIJ, investigating the events that depicted its foundation and the evolution of the group through the last forty years.
From Egypt to the Gaza Strip
The origins of the PIJ lie outside the Gaza Strip and are strictly related to the figure of Fathi al-Shiqaqi. Born in 1951 into a Palestinian refugee family, al-Shiqaqi moved to Egypt in 1974 to continue his medical studies. When al-Shiqaqi arrived in Egypt, the Egyptian sociopolitical context was strongly influenced by the defeat in the Six-Day War in 1967, which marked the end of Nasser’s era and stirred the propagation of university student movements and Islamism (a broad array of political ideologies, which range from fundamentalism to reformism, aimed at establishing Islamic principles in the sociopolitical environment). The Arab débâcle was also a watershed in al-Shiqaqi’s ideology, inducing him to strand Nasserism and champion Islamism. After joining the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamism became the framework in which al-Shiqaqi and his study circle in al-Zagazig were intellectualising the failure of the Palestinian resistance. Consequently, against the background of Islamism, the anti-colonial struggle and the nationalist fervour forged their collective identity, characterised by an action-oriented imprint vis-à-vis which the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood (PMB) – Hamas’s precursor – was strenuously averse. Amad Yassin, the then-PMB’s spiritual guide, insisted that Palestinian society had to be rebuilt through social work and proselytization. As a result, the aversion of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood to take up arms created a vacuum that al-Shiqaqi cunningly filled. The return to Palestine in 1981 is considered by experts as the founding moment of the PIJ. Yet, it publicly adopted the current name when the First Intifada flared up.
The PIJ found itself immersed in a very hostile environment. Although the tortuous milieu considerably trammelled its development, the PIJ showed to be astute in implementing a recruitment process among members in all societal spheres, especially in universities and mosques. Furthermore, the prison enlistment of former secular nationalist militants hastened the progression of the PIJ’s armed action and was vital in training the then members, a handful mainly composed of students who had never held a gun. As a result, even though there is no consensus among scholars about the first military operation, the asymmetrical guerrilla against the Israeli occupiers systematically started in the mid-1980s.
From the First to the Second Intifada: surge and decline of the PIJ
The outbreak of the First Intifada in December 1987 hugely favoured the armed operations of the PIJ. By being the only Islamist group prone to violent insurgency until the creation of Hamas on 14 December of the same year, the PIJ took advantage of the popular discontent to engage in an armed struggle against Israel. However, the PIJ was a loose network of military cells consisting of a few hundred men carrying out opportunistic attacks with what was at their disposal.
Al-Shiqaqi did not have the opportunity to witness the ultimate accession of the PIJ because he was detained in the Israeli Nafha Prison. Despite being isolated from his fellow soldiers, al-Shiqaqi could preserve a channel of communication with his affiliates. For this reason, on 17 August 1988, he was deported to Lebanon by Israeli authorities. Yet, the exile provided to al-Shiqaqi the possibility to establish an alliance with Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran, nowadays the main financier and supporter.
In 1993, the drafting of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO, which marked the end of the First Intifada, heavily undermined the PIJ armed struggle since it lost its popular support because many Palestinians deemed the agreements as a pathway that would have improved their condition.
In the 1990s, despite suffering brutish repression by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), the PIJ carried out its most lethal attack against Israel. On 22 January 1995, at Beit Lid, two militants blew themselves up near a bus stop killing 21 soldiers and one Israeli civilian. The attack prompted the then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to sign the “red paper”, ordering the Mossad to kill al-Shiqaqi. On 26 October 1995, after months of tailing and surveillance, a Mossad commando intercepted al-Shiqaqi in Malta and killed him.
The assassination of al-Shiqaqi led to the election of Ramadan ‘Abdallah Shallah as PIJ secretary-general in late 1995. Straight away, Shallah found himself navigating rough waters. The increasing number of members and leaders either imprisoned or assassinated led to the period the movement describes as its “seven lean years”. The weakening of the PIJ is easily observed in the number of attacks performed after the death of its leader. Despite the vengeful ephemeral impetus, the operations drastically decreased to only 17 operations between 1996 and 2000.
The Oslo Accords, however, proved to be a double-edged sword, harbouring latent tensions that would violently come to the surface in 2000, sparking the Second Intifada. Just as it happened 20 years before, the al-Aqsa Intifada was a godsend for PIJ. Oslo was thought to mean the end of Israeli occupation and the start of Palestinian self-determination. Yet, when Palestinians realised that Oslo was just smoke and mirrors, they turned their attention back to armed resistance, favouring the PIJ resurrection. Moreover, when violence became the main currency of the Intifada, they were able to regain their socio-political power. This was illustrated by the presence of PIJ among the Palestinian actors who participated in the December 2002 ceasefire negotiations with Israel.
PIJ and Hamas: a troubled relationship
The relationship between the PIJ and Hamas has always been rocky. After his return to the Gaza Strip, PIJ suffered verbal and physical accusations from the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, which was fiercely against developing an armed insurgency against Israel.
Despite the peaceful coexistence during the First Intifada, the PIJ’s comeback in the early 2000s made Hamas extremely nervous, fostering the re-emergence of new friction between the two organisations. Hamas has always perceived itself as the only legitimate Palestinian Islamic organisation, discrediting PIJ as a mere puppet of Hezbollah and Teheran. When Hamas came to power in 2006, it attempted to impose a monopoly on the use of force, thus making the PIJ’s powerful position unacceptable. Inevitably, tensions mounted, resulting in some episodes of violent clashes. Despite the highs and lows, Hamas has always provided the PIJ with a sanctuary in the Gaza Strip during the last decades. In addition, the two Islamist groups agreed to increase coordination under mounting Iran’s pressure. After the launch of OSA, Hamas hailed the Joint Operation Room (JOR) of the Palestinian Resistance Factions, exhuming the first attempt of Fatah-Hamas-PIJ-led JOR during the Second Intifada. For the time being, although they are keen on displaying a “united front”, Hamas wanted to bridle the PIJ, forfending the presence of “a state within the state”.
PIJ remains a major threat to Israel
Since 2007, the PIJ has grown significantly among Palestinian armed resistance organisations, mainly because it is considered the “upright” resistance faction. In recent years, the PIJ has continued to be one of the main driving forces in the armed confrontation with Israel and its citizens, especially since Hamas seems to observe events from the sidelines due to its political commitment.
In 2018, ‘Abdallah Shallah was succeeded by Ziad al-Nakhalah, the current secretary-general of the PIJ. After his election, the group promptly revamped the struggle against Israel as its priority. The PIJ also continues to enjoy Teheran support, as underlined by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during his meeting with al-Nakhalah on 2-3 May 2023. This statement is part of Teheran’s strategy to consolidate its influence over the PIJ, Hamas, and Hezbollah, the so-called “Jerusalem Axis”. Yet, the cooperation seems rather fragile considering the reminiscences of certain fringes of the anti-Israel front.
Despite Tehran’s support, Israel’s overwhelming power in terms of military capacity and war technology remains unchallenged, as evidenced by the ease with which it has eliminated dozens of PIJ commanders in recent years. Notwithstanding this, the PIJ remains a primary objective and an immediate threat to the State of Israel and its citizens. As highlighted by Yair Lapid in 2022, the PIJ is considered by Tel Aviv as an Iranian proxy and Israel “will do whatever it takes to defend” its population and dismantle the organisation. Despite the Cairo-brokered ceasefire, tensions remain very high, particularly given al-Nakhalah’s statements of unwillingness to commit to a long-term truce proposal.