THE UNCERTAINTY REVOLVING AROUND THE PALESTINIAN ISLAMIC JIHAD
The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) is one of those Palestinian groups one hardly hears of, but who plays a crucial role in Gaza and has a radical approach in the fight against Israel. For this reason it has been blacklisted as a terrorist group by the United Kingdom (November 19 2001), the United States (November 27 2002) and the European Union (December 21 2005).
Just like Hamas - and under some respects even worse than Hamas - the Islamic Jihad portrays its political and military fight against Israel in a religious light, thus making its initiatives more radical. Its military operations have unequivocally taken the shape of acts of terrorism.
The armed struggle as a jihad, or holy war, makes the cohabitation with the Organization for the Liberation of Palestine (PLO) - the umbrella group that gathers the majority of Palestinian groups - extremely difficult. Relationships are even more tense with the political branch of the PLO, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). In fact, the PLO is an assembly of basically secular groups, closer to marxism in the past and with little or no ideological contact at all with islamic extremism.
Under this respect, the Islamic Jihad competes with Hamas for the leadership of radical Palestinian islam. It is not by chance that the group benefits from the support and proselytes in the Gaza Strip thanks to its hardcore stances as opposed to those recently taken by Khaled Meshal's group. If islam is used by Hamas in an ideological and theological key, the Islamic Jihad employs religion politically. If Hamas is more careful to its social agenda, the Islamic Jihad favors a military approach.
The PIJ was born in 1979 (even though sometimes its birth is postponed to coincide with the first Palestinian Intifada in 1987) under the good auspices of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The latter will later shift its support to Hamas, founded 10 years later by Sheykh Ahmed Yassin with the backing of the Brotherhood.
The reason for the Muslim Brotherhood's shift from the PIJ to Hamas was probably due to the Islamic Jihad founder's, Fathi Shaqaqi, conversion to Shi'ism. For a Sunni orthodox organization like the Brotherhood this represented a huge problem. Shaqaqi had converted following the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran, an event that marked a new era for islamic liberation struggles. And this was exactly what Fathi Shaqaqi was politically pursuing: a fight against oppressors (the Shah was replaced with Israel) and for a theocratic rule over Palestine. Furthermore, Shaqaqi's ideas were not in line with those of the Muslim Brotherhood. He privileged a military approach to political goals, while the Brotherhood pursued the opposite. And this was considered a way too moderate approach for Shaqaqi.
Fathi Shaqaqi was born in Gaza in 1951 when the Strip was still under Egyptian control. This is one of the reasons why his group is deep-rooted in Gaza rather than in the West Bank. A maths graduate at the Bir Zeit University near Ramallah, Shaqaqi obtained a medical degree in Egypt and came in contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members are doctors in the majority.
Following the killing of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981, Fathi Shaqaqi and other key members of his group were expelled and deported to Gaza. Shaqaqi then went to become a doctor in Jerusalem and came under the spotlight of Israeli security services. In 1983 he was convicted to one year in prison for subversive activity. In 1986 Fathi Shaqaqi received another 3 year sentence. During the first Intifada in August 1988 Shaqaqi was deported to Lebanon. Here he made contact with the Hezbollah, who will later become one of the main supporters of the PIJ, and with the Iranian theocracy through their embassies in Beirut and Damascus.
In 1989 Fathi Shaqaqi settled in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp (the biggest in the Middle East with over 150 thousand inhabitants) in the outskirts of Damascus, thus benefiting from the support of Bashar al Assad's regime whom at that time financed all those Palestinian groups fighting against Israel.
The Palestinian Islamic Jihad's opposition to the 1993 Oslo Agreement between the PLO and Israel lead to the formation of a coalition with all Damascus based Palestinian radical factions, including Hamas. On a military level, this lead to a series of suicide attacks, car bombs and joint military operations with Hezbollah. From that moment onwards, Fathi Shaqaqi became one of the major threats to the State of Israel and, as has often happened in the fight against Palestinian terrorism, a target for Mossad operations.
On October 26 1995 Fathi Shaqaqi was in Malta under a false name. The Mediterranean island was often a stop over on the road to other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Fathi was on his way to Libya. Gaddafi had promised financial support to the PIJ. As he walked back to his hotel, Shaqaqi was approached by a motorbike and shot dead by a silenced pistol. The killers then left their motorbike, boarded a car driven by an accomplice and disappeared by sea through a small harbor on the coast.
The death of the leader of the Islamic Jihad had a negative impact on the group's capabilities. Fathi Shaqaqi was replaced by another founder of the group, Abdullah Ramadan Shallah, also known as Ramadan Abdullah Mohamed Shallah. Shallah was also born in Gaza and had a Phd in Economics obtained at the Durham University in the UK. Shallah had also lived in the United States from 1990 to 1995 in Tampa, Florida. He was then working at the University of South Florida, but at the same time he lead an organization named "Islamic Committee for Palestine" and another group called "World Islam and Studies Enterprise". Both these organizations were dedicated to the recruitment, indoctrination and contact of terrorists.
Abdullah Mohamed Shallah
Ramadan Shallah did not have the charisma of his predecessor and his leadership coincided with a fall in recruitment and, as a consequence, of military operations. Furthermore, 911 and the US fight against terrorism have also impacted the group's operational capabilities.
Abdullah Ramadan Shallah is currently wanted by the US State Department (since November 27 1995) and by the FBI (since February 24 2006) on counts of terrorism, conspiracy and other crimes (extortion, money laundering, murder, corruption). A 5 million dollars bounty has been put on Shallah for the crimes he committed while in Tampa.
The current political stance of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad swings from the attempt to approach the PLO (contacts are underway for their re-entry in the organization) to a radical opposition to the PNA, whose leaders come from the PLO. The contradiction is only apparent and is based on political calculus, rather than on the PIJ's electoral strength. In the eyes of the Islamic Jihad the PNA represents a government in dialogue with Israel and a signatory of the Oslo Agreement, whom the PIJ refutes. The same can be said for the Palestinian Legislative Council (the Parliament) from whom the PNA stems in the form of a government.
On the other hand, the Islamic Jihad is conscious of its military strength, but also of its lack of electoral support. With the exception of a modest number of followers in Gaza, Jenin and Hebron, the PIJ knows it cannot compete for Parliament against other islamist or secular groups. Even though lately - thanks to its increased military firepower - the Palestinian Islamic Jihad has gained some popularity. Overall though its votes are an estimated 4% of all Gaza voters, who total 900 thousand. This is one of the reasons the group did not participate in the 2006 elections that saw Hamas triumph in the Strip.
But how many votes you have has no influence on re-entering the PLO, since access to the organization's governing bodies, namely the Palestinian National Council (PNC, Munazzamat al Tharir al Filistiniyah), is granted both by elections (in which the PIJ has said it will run) and quotas (in countries like Jordan, Syria and Lebanon). A return in the PLO does not imply an automatic recognition of the Oslo Agreement, even though it implies an osmosis between the PNC and the PNA. The Islamic Jihad's is a subterfuge to avoid isolation, rather than a clear political stance. This approach also takes care of Iran's wishes of maintaining an ideologically pure group that has not been contaminated by deals or negotiations with the Israelis.
In 2011 the PLO has constituted a new organism, the Temporary Committee for Leadership, with the aim of reforming its structure and of allowing the return of all those factions like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad who don't recognize the Israeli State. At this time both groups are represented in the Committee.
The PIJ's military strength as opposed to its political weakness pushes the group to fueling the clash with Israel and to play the role that best suits them. If there was peace and dialogue, Shallal and his acolytes would have no bargaining chips.
Furthermore, the Islamic Jihad has to face yet another hurdle: Khaled Meshal's confirmed leadership of Hamas. This means that the competing islamic group in Gaza is favoring dialogue (and thus the two states solution), rather than its once radical stances on the elimination of Israel as supported by Ismail Haniyeh. If Hamas were to reconcile with the PNA, this would favor the peace process and their participation in the next Palestinian elections.
This could have some serious repercussions for the PIJ. Would they be able to move freely in Gaza in the same way Hamas has allowed them to move to date? After all, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad says no to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, no to the peace process and to those who carry on with it (namely the PNA), yes to an islamic state in Palestine and yes to armed struggle. On the other hand, Hamas has a new political agenda: yes to a Palestinian state within the 1967 boundaries, yes to popular uprisings, yes to the attempt of erasing Hamas from terrorist blacklists and turning it into a political force and negotiating partner and yes to a return in the PLO.
Backing this new agenda are Khaled Meshal's financiers in the Gulf, namely Qatar, Sunni interests, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi's new policy. All of these groups are hostile to Iran, to date the Palestinian Islamic Jihad's major and only sponsor.
And this is where Ramadan Shallah's political calculus comes into play: it is better to return in the Palestinian orbit, rather than remain isolated in Gaza and the West Bank.
As we've already stated, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad's sole bargaining tool is its military strength. The military wing of the movement, which is vaguely separated from the political branch, is represented by the Al Quds Brigades. Its estimated force is around 1.000/1.500 men (the organization claims a larger figure) that, in order to avoid Israeli retaliation, are divided into secret and isolated cells coordinated by a regional command whose orders come from the political leadership.
After suffering heavy losses in the fight against Israel in 2008-2009, the Al Quds Brigades military capabilities were improved thanks to Syrian and mainly Iranian support (i.e. weapons supply, logistical and training support). Iran also provides income for the families of detainees and provides health assistance to members of the Islamic Jihad.
The organization's increased military strength was highlighted during the November 2012 clashes (that began on November 14 during the Israeli "Pillar of Defense" military operation) when the Al Quds Brigades launched over 900 rockets onto Israel. The majority of these weapons - Fajr 5 and Grad rockets - came from Iran and were smuggled into Gaza by the Hezbollah. Only a minimum part of the rockets was produced locally because of Egypt's closure of supplies coming from the tunnels in the Sinai. The Fajr rockets have a range of 75 km - Tel Aviv is only 71 km away from the Gaza Strip - and have a powerful explosive warhead. The circumstance has forced the Civil Defense in Tel Aviv to train the population against this threat.
The very fact that the PIJ was able to smuggle and stock the rockets in Gaza without the Israelis detecting and destroying them is a sign of the group's military capability and of the organization's tight proof from enemy infiltrations. And this means efficiency.
Another less publicized aspect that has worried Israel was the Islamic Jihad's hacking of the Israeli telephone system. The PIJ was able to send recorded voice messages to the civilian population. This is a typical act of cyber warfare, probably obtained through the Hezbollah (who run an efficient cyber warfare center in Beirut), that could create more problems in the future for Tel Aviv.
The Al Quds Brigades today prevail in the competition with the military wing of Hamas, the Ezzedin al Qassam Brigades, and the two groups hardly ever collaborate. The recent killing (November 14 2012) of Hamas' military chief, Ahmad Jaabari, has widened this gap even further.
THE RELATIONSHIP WITH IRAN
Iran has been the country that has supported Hamas more than anyone else. Ever since Khomeini's 1979 revolution support kept coming until they split roads following the crisis in Syria. Apart from the fact that both Khaled Meshal and Ramadan Shallal were forced to quit Damascus to avoid putting their lives in peril, Hamas is concentrating its efforts in supporting the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in its fight against Bashar al Assad. They are on the same side as the monarchies in the Gulf (mainly Qatar where Meshal often stays even though his headquarters have moved to Cairo). Furthermore, Khaled Meshal's recent confirmation at the head of the movement's political office and his victory of Ismael Haniyeh, the latter in favor of a closer relationship with Iran and who is on more radical positions, puts any cooperation with Tehran in serious difficulty.
The Islamic Jihad instead has maintained a neutral stance on the Syrian crisis (labeling the issue as an internal affair of Damascus, whilst other Palestinian factions, like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine of Ahmed Jibril have been deployed in assistance to Assad's troops), thus strengthening its relationship with the Iranian theocracy. They are now basically the sole Palestinian organization talking with Iran. A closer relationship with Tehran also means closer ties with the Lebanese Hezbollah, with whom they share a sort of joint military command in their fight against Israel. Here lies yet another contradiction, since the Hezbollah are fighting alongside Bashar al Assad. On the other, following Meshal's departure from Damascus, there are news of Hamas members training and assisting the Syrian rebels.
Finally, there is also a close personal friendship
between Ramadan Shallah and Iranian president Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad which makes Iranian support to the PIJ
Currently Ramadan Shallal sits at the helm of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in a position of Secretary General of the organization. He politically leads the group through the Supreme Consultative Council (Shura), that has recently moved from Damascus to Tehran. The movement also has offices in Khartoum and Beirut. The Consultative Council for the Jihad operates alongside the Shura taking care of all military matters. The PIJ is lead in Gaza by Khader Habib and by Raed Salah, aka "Abu Shakra" who was arrested several times by the Israelis and briefly held in the UK in 2011, in the Occupied Territories. Other key members of the group are in Israeli jails. The Islamic Jihad is to blame for the hunger strikes that routinely take place in prison. One of the most prominent members of the Islamic Jihad is Khader Adnan, who went on hunger strike for 66 days in 2012 before being released.
In the past, mainly starting in 1989 and until 2007, the operational activity of the PIJ has been characterized by suicide attacks and car bombs against the civilian population. After that, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad turned more into a military force, also thanks to the building of the Israeli security walls that have made both guerrilla operations and infiltrations from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank more difficult.
Lately, the organization has declared it will respect the ceasefire with Israel unless attacked and will retaliate without prior consultation with Hamas. This is once again a show of autonomy. The PIJ's radical stances are there to earn the sympathies of other Palestinian extremist factions that don't accept Hamas coming to moderate terms with Israel.
There are several Islamist Palestinian groups both in the West Bank and in Gaza. In some cases they are dedicated to the political opposition to Hamas, but more often they are involved in terrorist activities not necessarily targeting Israel. Such a proliferation of extremism has been made possible by a strongly islamized environment where teachings by imams are not sufficiently disciplined, by economic hardship and constant threat of Israeli military retaliations. Several among these radical factions were groups formerly part of Hamas or Fatah. They now find ideological proximity with the PIJ. This also allows room for the infiltrations of groups affiliated with Al Qaeda.
There are several names out there: "The army of Umma", "The Zarqawi Group for Palestine" (from the name of an Al Qaeda terrorist killed in Iraq), "Al Tawhid wal Jihad" (founded in 2008 with a declaration of affiliation with Al Qaeda), "Fatah al Islam", "Jund Ansar Allah" (founded in 2008 to contrast Hamas' moderate line), "Jaysh al Islam" (affiliated to Al Qaeda and yet another Hamas splinter group), "Ansar al Sunna", the "Mujaheddin Shura Committee" (that has recently launched rockets against Israel), "Popular Resistance Committee", "The Sword of Truth Brigades", "Jaysh al Qaeda" (lead by extremist Abu Sahib al Maqdissi). And the list could continue.
The PIJ's current standing in the extremist galaxy will continue unless a just and negotiated solution to the Palestinian issue is found. Otherwise, the group could become attractive in case of a return to armed struggle as a tool to achieve Palestinian claims. And if this was the case, there will be future additions to the list of all those Palestinian militants and leaders who share the same faith as Shaqaqi, like: Abu Walid Dahdouh, Louai Saadi, Mahmoud Tawalbe Mahmoud al Majzoub, Thamer Khuweir, Husain Jaradat, Ayman al Fayed, Khaled Shahan...