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.
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.”