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 Tactics
PIJ seeks to create a state based on sharia (Islamic law) in all the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River—including Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Like Hamas, PIJ portrays the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a religious clash, not merely a territorial dispute. PIJ believes that the land of Palestine is consecrated for Islam and that, therefore, Israel usurped Palestine. Consequently, Israel’s very existence is an affront to God and Islam, and destroying Israel and reconquering Palestine are religious obligations.
In PIJ’s ideology, an Islamic state of Palestine can be established only through jihad (holy war) and the destruction of Israel. 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 Palestinian cause” and affirms “the Jihad solution and the martyrdom style as the only choice for liberation.” Accordingly, PIJ completely rejects negotiations with Israel or a two-state solution.
PIJ’s founders, Fathi Shaqaqi and Abd al-Aziz Awda, drew initial inspiration from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. However, both men left the Brotherhood in the late 1970s, feeling the group had become too moderate and did not focus enough on the plight of the Palestinians. Inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in Iran, Shaqaqi and Awda founded PIJ on the principles Khomeini advocated, with the goal of creating an Islamic state within the land that constituted the Palestine mandate prior to Israel’s creation in 1948. In 1979, Shaqaqi, still a student in Egypt, authors the book Khomeini: The Islamic Solution and the Alternative, describing Shaqaqi’s admiration of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.
PIJ is dedicated singularly to violent jihad. While Hamas has engaged in indirect talks with Israel (including on prisoner exchanges and ceasefires), PIJ refuses to negotiate with Israel—though the group has participated in pan-Palestinian ceasefires negotiated by Egypt. Also unlike Hamas, PIJ generally does not provide social services. However, in 2013, when Iran and Hamas were estranged due to Hamas’s abandonment of the Iranian-allied Assad regime in Syria’s civil war, Iran tasked PIJ with distributing $2 million in Iranian food aid in Gaza from the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation, a Beirut-based Iranian charity. The New York Times interpreted the move as an attempt to extend Iran’s influence in Gaza while undermining Hamas and strengthening the rival PIJ.
Ramadan Shallah, a former professor at the University of South Florida, has served as PIJ’s secretary general since his predecessor, PIJ founder Fathi Shaqaqi, was killed by Israel’s Mossad in 1995. PIJ is governed by a leadership council.
The al-Quds Brigades, PIJ’s armed wing, carries out violent attacks against Israel. The Brigades has regional staff commands. Each member within a command oversees a cell within that command’s region. The PIJ leadership issues orders and staff commanders carry out PIJ operations and coordinate cells. The U.S. State Department claims that PIJ has fewer than 1,000 members, though the group claimed in 2011 to have at least 8,000 battle-ready fighters in Gaza.
International Arabic-language newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported in 2012 that PIJ’s Syria-based leadership had relocated to Iran but continued to enjoy positive ties with their Syrian patrons. However, a PIJ official denied that report, claiming “relations between [PIJ] and the Syrian government are excellent, unlike Hamas,” whose leadership left Syria after refusing to support the Assad regime during the Syrian civil war. Official representatives of the group are also stationed elsewhere in the Middle East, including Iran.
Iranian Material and Financial Support of PIJ’s Violent Activities
In 1987 Israel exiled PIJ from Gaza to Lebanon, where the group reportedly began cooperating with Hezbollah and receiving training from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In 1989, PIJ’s leadership relocated to Syria but left a small group in Lebanon, where it launched joint attacks with Hezbollah throughout the 1990s. The United States designated PIJ a Foreign Terrorist Organization on October 8, 1997.
Iran is PIJ’s primary source of financial support, according to the U.S. State Department. A 1998 lawsuit against Iran in U.S. federal court revealed that the Islamic Republic allocated $2 million in its annual budget to PIJ. That number has since skyrocketed—in late 2013, PIJ sources revealed that the terror group received about $3 million per month from Iran. During the 2012 war between Israel and Hamas, PIJ fired rockets into Israeli territory and hung banners across Gaza streets with the phrase, “Thank you, Iran.” A February 2014 report by Ali Nourizadeh, director of the Center for Iranian Studies in London, stated that Iran provides PIJ with $100 to $150 million annually.
Since the beginning of the 2011 Syrian civil war, Iran has reportedly increased its support of PIJ at the expense of Hamas. Unlike Hamas, Iran supports Syria’s Assad regime and PIJ has noticeably maintained its base in Damascus, Syria (although PIJ otherwise appears to be neutral). In 2013, Iran sent $2 million worth of food aid to Gaza during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, entrusting members of PIJ with distribution. This aid bore stamps with the Palestinian flag alongside the PIJ logo and the Iranian flag.
In mid-2015, a senior PIJ leader said the group was suffering from its worst financial crisis in history. One PIJ leader attributed the crisis to Egypt’s closure of the smuggling tunnels beneath the Gaza-Egypt border. The same source also said Iran had cut back its funding to the group. Iran reportedly cut funding because PIJ refused to issue a statement supporting Iran in its conflict against Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Iran had reportedly cut PIJ’s funding by 90 percent as of January 2016. The loss in funding allegedly forced PIJ to slash salaries of its employees. According to media reports, Iran still considers PIJ a “friend” but one the country is unable to continue to support financially. PIJ’s leaders insist the group still has good relations with Iran.