Palestinian Islamic Jihad
Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) is a Palestinian Islamist terrorist group sponsored by Iran and Syria. Founded in 1979 as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, PIJ is the second-largest terrorist group in Gaza today (after Hamas). PIJ is dedicated to eradicating Israel and establishing an autonomous Islamic Palestinian state in the lands currently comprising Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. PIJ believes that the land of Palestine is consecrated for Islam, that Israel usurped Palestine, and, therefore, that Israel is an affront to God and Islam and that Palestine’s re-conquest is a holy task. PIJ’s primary sponsor is Iran, which has provided the group with millions of dollars in direct funding, as well as training and weapons. PIJ has partnered with Iranian- and Syrian-sponsored Hezbollah in carrying out joint operations.
Ideology and Activities
Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) is a Palestinian Islamist group founded in 1979 as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. PIJ is the second-largest terrorist group in the Gaza Strip, after Hamas. The United States Department of State designated PIJ as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on October 8, 1997.
PIJ seeks to establish a religiously-governed Palestinian state comprising all of historical Palestine, and views its clash with Israel as a primarily religious war, rather than a mere territorial dispute. According to the “Manifesto of the Islamic Jihad in Palestine,” a document discovered by federal authorities investigating a Florida man with suspected PIJ ties, the group rejects any peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, believing only violence can liberate Palestine.
Two of PIJ’s founders, Fathi al-Shqaqi and Abdelaziz Odeh, initially drew inspiration from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. However, in the late 1970s, they became disillusioned with the Brotherhood over what they perceived as the latter’s moderation and lack of focus on Palestine. They soon became inspired by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in Iran, and founded PIJ on Khomeinist principles, aiming to establish an Islamic state in Palestine.
Unlike Hamas, PIJ generally does not provide social services, focusing primarily on violent attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians alike. However, as tensions mounted between Iran and Hamas in the early 2010s over the Syrian civil war, Iran used PIJ to try to undermine Hamas—or at least intimidate Hamas into getting back in line behind Iran by undercutting the group’s popular support. Tehran tasked PIJ with carrying out Iranian-funded discrete charitable and social-welfare activities that traditionally came under the purview of Hamas and its large social-services apparatus. For example, PIJ distributed $2 million in food aid in Gaza from the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation, an Iranian-regime–controlled charity.
On February 19, 2020, a PIJ sniper team fired on a group of Israeli soldiers and police officers along the Gaza-Israel border. On February 23, Israeli forces kill a PIJ member attempting to plant explosives along the Gaza-Israel border fence. PIJ launched more than 21 rockets into Israel from Gaza in retaliation. In response to the rocket fire, Israeli forces strike multiple PIJ targets in Syria, killing at least two PIJ members. On February 24, PIJ continued to launch dozens of rockets toward Israel’s southern communities in response. Israel’s defense systems intercept most of the rockets but reported damage to homes and minor injuries.
PIJ has become adept at transforming seemingly mundane items into armaments that were used to attack Israel in the 2021 conflict between Israel and the two Iran-backed militant organizations in the Gaza Strip, namely PIJ and Hamas. As the conflict drew to a close, PIJ leader, Ziyad al-Nakhala, boasted about the weapons that were created from construction materials, like metal pipes, and effectively deployed. “The silent world should know that our weapons, by which we face the most advanced arsenal produced by American industry, are water pipes that engineers of the resistance turned into the rockets that you see," he said. As foreign countries provide economic assistance for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, it will be difficult to avoid inadvertently supplying the materials that are needed for weapons.
According to one expert at the United States Institute for Peace, PIJ exhibited an unprecedent ability to “stress” Israel’s missile defense system, known as “the Iron Dome,” through launching larger quantities of rockets and at a faster pace than in the past. Specialist Fabian Hinz determined that most of the rockets were built in Gaza; nevertheless, some of them were able to reach Tel Aviv, approximately 45 miles away.
PIJ’s weapon of choice in this conflict was the unsophisticated Badr 3 rocket, which is believed to have been designed in Iran for the purpose of transferring the technical know-how to proxies and partners throughout the region. This know-how would allow Iran’s militia network to construct their own rockets, where they cannot rely on transfers, as tends to be the case in Gaza under the Israeli blockade.
The Badr 3 rocket carries a warhead that weighs between 661 and 882 pounds. It is heavier than most Palestinian rockets, and thus results in a larger explosion; however, its range is limited. PIJ did not deploy precision-guided rockets in the recent conflict, but they did use other forms of precision-guided munitions, including the Hamas Shehab suicide drone.
The group rejects any diplomatic approach to resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict; it won’t even engage in talks with Israel. In November 2021, PIJ Secretary-General Ziyad al-Nakhlah blasted Hamas for accepting aid that was approved by Israel. In an interview with Hezbollah-affiliated news network al-Mayadeen, he announced that Israel only approved the economic assistance provided by Egypt because it would “tame Gaza” through incentives. PIJ did participate in the ceasefire agreement brokered by Egypt that brought an end to the 2021 conflict.
PIJ and Hamas
Although Hamas and PIJ have competed for influence and resources in the past, the groups’ two leaders made an agreement to coordinate between their military wings, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassem Brigades and the al-Quds Brigades, respectively, and increase terror attacks in Israel, especially in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The agreement to coordinate military activities was reached during a meeting between the leaders of Hamas and PIJ in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip in December 2021.
On other occasions, Hamas and the PIJ are at odds in terms of the approach to take, with the former sometimes advocating for restraint and the latter typically taking the more violent route. This happened in April 2022, when Hamas prevented PIJ from firing rockets at Israel, knowing that it would be drawn into any escalation between PIJ and Israel. PIJ reportedly wanted to escalate after three of its members, on their way to commit a terrorist act, were killed by Israeli security forces, and Hamas made it clear that it does not want another conflict with Israel at this time.
A few weeks after Hamas prevented PIJ from firing rockets into Israel, high tensions surrounding the overlap of Jewish and Muslim religious holidays finally boiled over into overt conflict. Several media outlets suspected PIJ of leading the initiative, though the group did not claim responsibility for the rockets launched on multiple occasions on April 18th, April 20th, and April 22nd. Hamas’ involvement was also not clear. However, senior members of both groups were in contact with Iran from the start of the attacks. Hamas’ political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh and the Secretary-General of PIJ spoke by phone with Iran’s supreme leader’s foreign policy advisor Ali Akbar Velayati.
A key difference between the two Palestinian terrorist groups is that Hamas governs Palestinian territory, whereas PIJ does not. In 2007, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, and thus inherited the responsibility of looking after the interests of the Palestinians in Gaza. PIJ, on the other hand, does not have governance responsibilities. Where Hamas has to manage various interests, including those of Qatar, another one of its patrons, and daily life of people in the Gaza Strip, PIJ is more subservient to Iran’s interests. Tehran gives millions of dollars a year to its proxy PIJ, while promoting its attacks against Israel. Since Hamas is held responsible for Gaza’s economy, the group is more risk-averse, given the devastating consequences that it usually elicits from the Israeli Defense Forces. Moreover, military escalation could hurt the terrorist group politically, as the people blame it for civilian casualties.
In early August 2022, PIJ launched a barrage of approximately 100 long-range rockets deep into Israeli territory from the Gaza Strip, setting off alarms in several suburbs south of Tel Aviv, but causing no injuries. Unlike the May 2021 conflict, in which both Palestinian terrorist groups Hamas and PIJ launched rockets into Israel, Hamas did not join PIJ in the August 2022 terrorist attacks on Israel, nor was the group targeted in Israel’s military response. Hamas has repeatedly indicated that it does not want military escalation in the Gaza Strip. Gaza is still recovering from the May 2021 conflict, which saw intense Israeli airstrikes. Military escalation involving Hamas could also result in the revocation of permits for people from the Gaza Strip to work in Israel, a major boon to the Gaza Strip’s blockaded economy.
On August 2nd, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) arrested Bassem al-Saadi, the head of PIJ in the West Bank who had been arrested on multiple prior occasions and released. His arrest in the northern West Bank city of Jenin was part of a series of arrests that occurred under an Israeli operation dubbed “Break the Wave,” targeting militants throughout the Palestinian territories in response to a wave of Palestinian violence in which 19 Israelis had been killed. Jenin is known as a hotbed for terrorist activity, and according to the Shin Bet, Saadi was in the process of building up PIJ fighters in the area in preparation to attack Israel when he was arrested. He is also viewed as being responsible for the radicalization of the organization’s operatives.
Prior to the PIJ rocket attack, Israel had already begun to implement defensive measures against the terrorist threat, which had become more imminent after the arrest of PIJ’s leader in the West Bank. Anticipating a terrorist attack, Israel shut down roads at the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel. When militant forces and equipment, including anti-tank units, began to move toward the Israeli border, Israel carried out preemptive air strikes against militant positions in the Gaza Strip, killing Tayseer al-Jabari, a top PIJ commander who was responsible for planning terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens. While the strikes were occurring, PIJ leader Ziyad al-Nakhalah traveled to Tehran and met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who signaled his support for the Axis of Resistance and the PIJ’s rocket attack against Israel, saying “today, resistance is both defensible as an idea and has yielded results in the field of action.” Nakhalah also met with the commander-in-chief of the IRGC while in Tehran. In a letter to Nakhalah, Supreme Leader Khamenei described PIJ’s rocket attacks on Israel as “courageous” and stressed the importance of connecting the resistance in the West Bank to Gaza. Behind closed doors, Tehran likely encouraged the PIJ to escalate hostilities against Israel. Indeed, PIJ began launching more rockets into Israel, as the PIJ’s leader was in Tehran. But Egyptian mediation, coupled with Hamas’ lack of entry into the fighting, likely shifted the balance in accepting a ceasefire.
PIJ and Hamas both praised the spate of terror attacks in Israel that occurred in late March 2022 and early April. PIJ commended attacks in Beersheba and Hadera, even though they were claimed by ISIS, a Sunni radical group which often clashes with PIJ’s patron, Tehran. PIJ’s Khalid al-Batsh said “the self-sacrificing Hadera operation came in response to the summit of humiliation and shame in the occupied Negev,” referring to the Negev Summit, which brought together the foreign ministers of Egypt, Israel, the UAE, Morroco and the US in southern Israel to discuss concerns over Iran’s regional expansionism and its nuclear program. On the heel of these terror attacks, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and PIJ leader Ziyad al-Nakhalah met in Lebanon to discuss Palestinian “jihadist operations.”
A leadership council governs PIJ. Ramadan al-Shalah, a former University of South Florida professor, assumed the title of Secretary General in 1995 after Israel assassinated cofounder Fathi al-Shqaqi. In 2018, Ziad al-Nakhalah replaced al-Shalah as PIJ’s leader.
PIJ’s leadership has operated from Syria since 1989, when they relocated from Lebanon after Israel expelled them a year earlier. Official representatives of the group are also stationed elsewhere in the Middle East, including Iran. In 2012, rumors circulated that the group’s leadership had relocated to Iran, (despite continued good ties with the Syrian regime), but a PIJ official denied that.
PIJ’s militia is called Saraya al-Quds (the Jerusalem Brigades). According to the U.S. State Department, PIJ possesses an armed strength of about 1,000 members, though the group has claimed it commands 8,000 fighters. Saraya al-Quds’ cadres are divided into several regional staff commands, which oversee different cells.
Iranian Support of PIJ’s Violent Activities
Iran first established direct ties with PIJ in 1987, when Israel exiled Fathi al-Shiqaqi from Gaza to Lebanon. There, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) intelligence branch contacted him and began training the group. PIJ also established ties with Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanon-based extension, during this time.
Tehran has financed PIJ since, increasing its funding from $2 million annually in 1998 to $3 million a month in late 2013, according to PIJ sources. However, in 2014, a study claimed Iran provided PIJ with $100-$150 million annually. In February 2019, PIJ spokesman Abu Hamza told Iran’s Al-Alam TV that “since the day of its establishment, the Islamic Republic [of Iran] has been supporting the Palestinian fighters financially, militarily, in training, and in all aspects.”
Iran’s tensions with Hamas as a result of the Syrian civil war could account for Tehran’s increased funding to the rival PIJ, which—despite maintaining official neutrality on that conflict—remained friendly with Syria’s Assad regime. However, Iran appears to have scaled back funding to PIJ beginning in 2015, when a senior leader claimed the group was suffering from its worst financial crisis ever. Some within PIJ attributed this cash crunch to Egypt’s closure of smuggling tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border. However, others said Iran had slashed PIJ’s financing by as much as 90 percent as of January 2016 because the group refused to officially condemn Saudi-led anti-Iran war efforts in Yemen.
Nonetheless, Iran and PIJ still claim to enjoy good relations. PIJ Secretary General al-Nakhala disclosed that former head of the IRGC Quds Force Qassem Soleimani “personally” managed an operation to send weapons to Gaza, traveling to different countries to supply weapons to the Palestinians. In late 2018, PIJ’s elected Secretary General Ziad al-Nakhala visited Iran and met with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and senior Iranian officials—including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani—who pledged continued support for the Palestinian Cause.
In a November 2019 video, PIJ’s Al-Quds Brigade introduced a new rocket to its arsenal and thanked Iran for its support. Intelligence and Israeli military officials told the Wall Street Journal in May 2019 that Iran provides Hamas and PIJ $60 million annually, but that Hamas has more autonomy than PIJ in its decision-making in Gaza. During this time, reports emerged that PIJ was provoking a conflict with Israel that Hamas did not want. Officials also told the Wall Street Journal that PIJ controls more of the 10,000 rockets in Gaza than Hamas does. After a barrage of missile attacks in 2019, Israel launched a targeted killing against one of PIJ’s top operatives Baha Abu Al-Ata, whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as a “ticking time bomb.” In a separate strike, Israel also targeted another PIJ operative Akram al-Ajouri in Syria, whom Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, described as the “real direct connection between Islamic Jihad and Iran.”
The nexus between Iran and PIJ was made clear in a May 2021 interview with a PIJ official named Ramez al-Halabi: "The mujahideen in Gaza and in Lebanon use Iranian weapons to strike the Zionists. We buy our weapons with Iranian money. An important part of our activity is under the supervision of Iranian experts. The contours of the victories in Palestine as of late were outlined with the blood of Qassem Soleimani, Iranian blood. Today, the patronage of the axis of resistance has begun to prevail in the region, thanks to Allah and to the blood of the martyrs, and it has begun to make an impact, and what an impact!”
A minor discrepancy in messaging between the PIJ and the Iranian regime occurred in September 2021, when the Iranian armed forces suggested that the Palestinian militant group would protect Tehran. The PIJ responded that it exists to fight against Israel and works with Tehran to that end. “All resistance forces, including Iran, stand in one front against the Zionist enemy and its allies,” PIJ urged.
Despite the insistence that PIJ is focused on Israel, its supporters gathered in a massive pro-Iran rally, chanting such slogans as “America is the Great Satan” and “Death to the House of Saud.” These demonstrations are motivated, in part, through an effective propaganda machine, taught to the PIJ by its Iranian and Hezbollah mentors.
Qatar is also known to be a supporter of PIJ and the Muslim Brotherhood, which does not sit well with the Emiratis, who view political Islam as a threat to their rule. In June 2020, a lawsuit alleged that Qatar sought to “evade US sanctions by channeling its funds through three entities,” namely Qatar Charity and two banks controlled by the royal family, Masraf al-Rayan and Qatar National Bank. By extension, the Qataris involved in financing these terrorist groups may be liable for the violence that these groups carry out and required by court order to pay compensation to the victims.