The Movement for Palestinian Islamic Jihad

(To Paolo Palumbo)

In the fragmented world-wide Islamist landscape, Palestinian radicalism has always played a central role, not so much for active participation in global terrorist activities, but for a substantial ideological weight. From a research published on The Welt des Islam, Researchers Thomas Hegghammer and Joas Wagemakers stressed that Palestinians, although in the minority in the field of international terrorism, occupy a central position in the Islamist narrative, more than any other Sunni group1. In particular, three names emerge that - for example for al-Qaeda - have traced the path of the new jihad: Abdallah Azzam, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filistini. Although these three represent a small part of the Islamist literary production, the importance of their words appears to be pre-eminent, serving as a guide for many radical transnational groups. As far as activism on the ground is concerned, Hamas and the Palestinian cause thus represent an indispensable gear of jihadist thinking since the struggle against Israel and its allies is one of the pivots around which the motivations of terrorism revolve. Although Hamas continues to fight a war circumscribed to the territories, another Palestinian organization has shown a more international vocation: the Palestinian Islamic Jihad or PIJ (Palestinian Islamic Jihad).

Two organizations, one goal, two modus operandi

Palestinian Islamic Jihad (originally called the "Islamic Avant-garde") was born between 1975 and 1976 in the Gaza Strip, founded by two supporters of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: Fathi Shaqaqi and Sheikh Abd al-Aziz al-Awda. Shaqaqi and Awda were both originally from Gaza, who grew up in two refugee camps and then emigrated to Egypt to study: the first graduated in medicine, while Awda - considered the spiritual guide of the movement - specialized in religious sciences2. At one point the Muslim Brotherhood diverted its interests from the "Palestinian cause": the condemnation of the Zionists was unanimous, however the active struggle against the Jews in Israel was delegated to the nationalist groups3. This new position created the first rift between the Palestinians and the Egyptian Islamist representation; a division then made final after the 1979 Revolution in Iran.

The Revolution of Tehran attracted, in fact, the attention of Shaqaqi who, although Sunni, applauded the Ayatollah's takeover of power although he was Shiite. His support for the Revolution took shape in a publication (Kohmeyni: the Islamic solution and the alternative) which lifted out lives on the part of the leaders of the Brotherhood and a motion of suspension for the same author. The exclusion of Shaqaqi from the Egyptian Islamist movement caused a further removal of the Palestinians who preferred to focus on figures closer to local issues such as Khadir Habib and the current leader of the Ramadan Shallah group (photo).

The support of the Muslim Brotherhood, however, remained a pillar for many jihadists, especially for those who could not forget what their origin was. Even today under the umbrella of the PIJ militarize other minor organizations that are inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, including some factions fighting al-Fatah4. Iran, as we shall see later, was a link aimed at obtaining financial support and giving more voice to its demands.

The Islamic ideology of the PIJ sprang up in one of the most critical moments of the Israeli administration of Gaza, whose control was entrusted to General Ariel Sharon. The riots in the Strip were daily: first the Palestinian militants struck their own comrades as they were to cooperate with the IDF occupation forces. Later they turned to Jewish families and it was at that point that the Israeli commander decided to suppress any violence by adopting brutal methods, probably effective, but not very far-sighted.5. The Gaza Strip and the precarious living conditions of its inhabitants served as an incubator for Islamist organizations whose leaders were proselytizing among the youngest who crowded the refugee camps. Within these "infernal circles" the Muslim Brotherhood provided assistance, asking volunteers to exchange weapons for the Israeli occupation. Both Hamas and the PIJ shared the same purpose and the same ideals, but despite the similarities the PIJ had a wider identity than the territories and its presence was traceable in several Arab and non-Arab countries.6. This dilation was connected to the life path of Fathi Shaqaqi who, after serving two years in prison, was deported to the 1989 together with al-Awda in Lebanon from where he began to weave his plot to establish a PIJ office in Damascus. in Syria. From here began the first retaliation against Israel: the assault on a bus of Jewish tourists in Egypt in 1990 (9 Israeli dead, 2 Egyptian and 19 injured) and a serious knife attack on the streets of Tel Aviv in March 1993.

The same year the PIJ rejected the Oslo accords and on that occasion, feeling its ideals betrayed by the Arafat directive, Shaqaqi (photo) tightened fruitful links with Iran and the Hezbollah militias to ask them for more support for the Palestinian cause.

The Palestinians of Islamic Jihad pervaded the territories with anti-propaganda propaganda leaflets also establishing a newspaper - Al-Istiqlal - then controlled by the Palestinian Authority. The sudden rapprochement with Iran further distanced the PIJ from Hamas, which, although also unfavorable to settling with the Israelis, had shown a more cautious attitude towards Iran. Hamas obtained wide consensus, while PIJ remained a minority group, able to collect under its wing just 5% of the population present in the territories7.

Although the PIJ acolytes were few, the quality of their attacks against Israel had nothing to envy to that of Hamas. Both armed factions widely used suicide attacks, considering them the only weapon capable of terrorizing the Israeli population. The 2000 Intifada signaled a fatal escalation of bombings with people and vehicles stuffed with explosives: between November 2000 and October 2001 the PIJ claimed responsibility for five bomb attacks, the most serious in Hadera that caused 2 dead and 60 injured. Leafing through the electronic pages of the START database that collects news on the various terrorist plots perpetrated by terrorist organizations around the world, we note that in some cases the claims come from both Hamas and PIJ. The coexistence of the two jihadist souls is connected to the weakness of the PIJ regarding the structure and numbers to conduct the attacks autonomously.

Ten days after the agreement between Sharon and Arafat for a general ceasefire in Gaza and the West Bank, the 1 June 2001 one shahid he exploded his dead load in the middle of a row of young people in front of the entrance of the "Pacha" disco in the center of Tel Aviv: they died in 20 and 100 were injured. The impact of the attack, claimed by the brigades Ezzeddin al-Kassam (Hamas military wing) determined the reaction of the Palestinian Authority that will incarcerate several members of Hamas and PIJ including its spiritual leader Sheikh Abdullah Shami. Shami's arrest unleashed the anger of the population who surrounded his home with a human wall, delaying his arrest; the same happened when Mahmoud Tawalbi was imprisoned in Jenin8.

The spiral of terror was just beginning and tensions with the PA often resulted in intimidation actions to erode peace talks with the Israeli government. The 8 September 2001, in one of the busiest areas in the center of Jerusalem at the Sbarro pizzeria (photo), a suicide bomber detonated a hidden bomb in the case of a guitar killing 16 people (including 7 children) and wounding 130. PIJ notified her responsibility with a fax sent to the Associated Press's Beirut office9.

The PIJ demanded the removal of the Arafat government: in January of 2003 the main representatives of the Palestinian groups met in Cairo to decide what their attitude towards the PA would be. Everyone agreed to refuse the truce and the possibility of forming a coalition to take power10.

Quickly abandoning the coupistic ambitions, the 25 June 2003 the PIJ and Hamas reached an agreement with the AP for a three-month "ceasefire" without surrendering arms to President Abbas. A move of convenience, driven primarily by international developments and US diplomatic pressures on supporters of Palestinian jihad such as Syria and Iraq.

After three months of peace, also useful to recover and reorganize the ranks, Hamas had become the main reference for the fight against Israel, while the PIJ and other minor groups were slowly losing ground. The 19 may 2003 in open contrast to what were the Islamist prescriptions, a young woman of 19 years such Hiba Daraghmeh martyred in a commercial center of Afula: the bomb was claimed right by PIJ11. The recruitment of women, although blamed in principle by the Islamist community, became a peculiarity of the Palestinian Jihad which enlisted possible candidates in universities in the north of the West Bank as well as in villages and towns. Women aroused less suspicion, mingled easily with the locals and did not arouse the same attentions of one shahid man. The 4 October 2003 another female martyr blew herself up in Haifa in the prestigious restaurant Maxim: the suicide was called Hanadi Jaradat and she was a law student of Jenin. As is often the case, Israeli investigative services learned that Hanadi was Jadi Jaradat's sister, a PIJ member killed by IDFs during a roundup with his cousin, Fadi Jaradat12. It was a typical case in which the extreme sacrifice of a martyr was linked to reasons of family revenge.

The link with Iran

As we have seen, the first political leader of the IPJ made serious contacts with the Iranian regime, making it one of the main political interlocutors of the Palestinian movement. The already quoted publication of Shaqaqi on the positive aspects of the Iranian revolution constituted the starting point of this cooperation, but also sanctioned a clear separation from the Muslim Brotherhood. Taysir al-Khatib, representative of the Brotherhood, reminded the Palestinian brother how the Iranian revolution was undoubtedly a positive event "but that the Iranians were still Shiites, and they were Sunnis and had the Islamic world in their hands"13. In a fairly recent interview the new leader of the PIJ, Ramadan Shallah wanted to clarify the Palestinian position towards the Iranian Shiites: "I criticize the Islamic regime for not having an adequate overview. We must develop a world policy; in Iran, the situation is complicated, yes I am an Islamic state, but they differ from the Sunni global vision, which is also mine. I agree with their foreign policy, but I disappoint internal politics "14. In the end, however, Shallah has sanctified the presence of the Iranians in the Islamic scene since the only ones able to counterbalance the progressive loss of "international" power of the Sunnis. All this presents the undoubted contradictions that the interviewee has motivated with the fact that, despite Iran being a Shia state, it is nonetheless Islamic and safeguards the Palestinian cause thanks to constant pressure on the enemy Israel. An affinity of interests therefore, however, which has recently shown cracks deriving from a progressive cut in funding in favor of PIJ15. One of the reasons that threatens to undermine this ten-year bond is certainly the Iranian attempt to create one's own enclave leadership within the Palestinian jihad16. Subsequently, international contingencies forced Iran to review its policy of supporting the Palestinian movements.

1 Thomas Hegghammer-Joas Wagemakers, The Palestine Effect: The Role of Palestinians in the Transnational Jihad Movement, in "Die Welt des Islam", 2013, pp. 281-314. URL:

2 Nicolas Dot-Pouillard, Eugénie Rébillard, The Intellectual, the Militant, the Prisonier and the partisan: the genesis of the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine (1974-1988), Muslim World, Wiley, 2013, 103, p. 20. URL:

3 Ibid.

4 The other groups are Usrat al-Jihad, Abu-Jihad, a contingent of al-Fatah, the Islamic Jihad Organization al-Aqsa Battalions (founded in Jordan in 1982) and Tanzim al-Jihad. Sherifa Zuhur, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), in Encyclopedia of Terrorism, ABC-Clio, Santa Barbara California-Denver, Colorado-Oxford, England, 2013, vol. 2, p. 575.

5 Ahron Bregman, The damn victory. History of Israel and the occupied territories, Turin, Einaudi, 2014, p. 62.

6 Antony H. Cordesman, Arab-Israeli Military Forces in a Era of Asymmetric Wars, Standford University Press, Stanford California, 2008, p. 310.

7 Palestinian Islamic Jihad, op. cit., p. 576.

8 Anthony H. Cordesman, The Israeli-Palestinian War. Escalating to Nowhere, Praeger, Westport Connecticut - London, p. 214.

9 The attacker was identified as Hussein Omar Abu Amsheh, but shortly afterwards PIJ withdrew his declaration, declining all responsibility because, according to them, they were confused about the identity of the martyr. URL:

10 The Israeli-Palestinian War, op. cit. , p. 215.

11 According to the data reported by the START site, the attack had a double paternity having also participated in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades.

12 Jonathan Fighel, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Female Suicide Bombers, International Institute for Counter Terrorism, Articles, 06 / 10 / 2003, URL:

13 The Intellectual, the Militant, the Prisonier, cit.

14 Scott Atran, Robert Axelrod, Interview with Ramadan Shallah, Secretary General, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, (Damascus, Syria, December 15, 2009), in "Prespectives on Terrorism", Vol. 4, Issue 2, May 2010, p. 6. URL:

15 One of the causes of the crisis between PIJ and Iran was the failure to recognize the Palestinians of the revolutionary cause Houthi in Yemen and the open condemnation of the war wanted by Saudi Arabia.

16 Fatima al-Smadi, Analysis: Hamas, Islamic Jihad Redefining Relations with Iran, Report, Al Jazeera Center for Studies, 20 september 2015, p. 5. URL:

(photo: web / Ramadan Shalah)