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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Palestinian Islamic Jihad: A Long History of Iranian-Sponsored Terrorism


Members of PIJ during a march in Gaza for the Iranian-backed group’s newly appointed leader Ziad Nakhalah, Oct. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

On May 3, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) sniper in the Gaza Strip shot and wounded two Israeli officers during a Hamas-organized border riot. The attack set off a round of violence in which PIJ and Hamas fired some 700 rockets at Israel within a single 48-hour period, killing four Israelis and injuring many others.


The Iranian-backed terrorist group’s increasing military power—as demonstrated by its ability to provoke a military confrontation with Israel—will allow PIJ to increasingly challenge Hamas’ dictatorial rule in Gaza in support of the interests of its patrons in Tehran.


As the situation in Gaza remains unstable, it is critical that the United States and Israel continue to counter both PIJ and Hamas’ attempts to stoke further violence.


A Long History of Terrorism


PIJ was founded in 1979 by former members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who felt that the movement had become too moderate. The terrorist group was expelled from Egypt into Gaza in 1981, following its alleged connections to the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Inspired by the ideology behind the Islamic Revolution in Iran, PIJ is committed to the violent destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic Palestinian state in its place.


The group’s ideology is made clear in its “Manifesto of the Islamic Jihad in Palestine,” which affirms “the Jihad solution and the martyrdom style as the only choice for liberation” and rejects “any peaceful solution to the Palestinian cause.”


The recent escalation in May is only the latest of PIJ’s decades-long campaign of terrorism against the Jewish state. Since the 1980s, PIJ has trained operatives and orchestrated many terrorist attacks, including rocket attacks, suicide bombings, car bombings and shootings—killing and wounding hundreds of Israelis, as well as American citizens. During the second intifada alone, PIJ carried out more than 400 attacks, in which 134 Israelis were killed and some 880 were injured.


In response to PIJ’s extensive terrorist activity, the United States designated the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997. PIJ has also been designated as a terrorist organization by the European Union, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, Australia and Israel.


Following Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005, an emboldened PIJ began to assert itself as the primary alternative to the ruling Hamas regime through its continued provocation of violence with Israel. Over the last several decades, PIJ has disrupted multiple ceasefire agreements between Hamas and Israel. Nevertheless, despite the continued competition between Hamas and PIJ, both groups continue to work together in their attacks against Israel when it is advantageous for them.


In recent years, PIJ has played a key role alongside Hamas in attacking Israelis from Gaza, primarily through rocket attacks. Since May 2018, PIJ and Hamas have launched more than 1,900 rockets into Israel. They continue to terrorize Israeli citizens, as demonstrated in their most recent attack, which forced more than a million Israelis into bomb shelters and brought life in a number of Israeli communities to a standstill.


Expansive Arsenal and Personnel


PIJ reportedly possesses around 8,000 rockets, an arsenal larger than that of Hamas. Beyond this formidable arsenal, the group controls networks of weapons-production facilities and terror tunnels. PIJ’s growing arsenal and military infrastructure will allow the group to continue to threaten Israelis with increasing precision and destruction.


In terms of personnel, PIJ is currently the second-largest terrorist organization in Gaza (after Hamas), commanding around 6,000 fighters and 9,000 activists. While PIJ’s fighters are almost exclusively based in Gaza, the group’s senior leadership has operated in Syria and Lebanon since 1988, allowing PIJ to develop strong relations with Iran’s Lebanon-based terrorist proxy Hezbollah.


Iran’s Primary Palestinian Proxy


Iran is PIJ’s principal funder, providing the group with hundreds of millions of dollars over the last decade, as well as advanced weapons and military training. PIJ is the primary Iranian proxy in the Palestinian arena and regularly acts directly on Iran’s behalf.


Beyond military activities, Iran funds a PIJ network of charitable organizations—including the Al-Ansar Fund and the Gazan branch of the Iranian Martyrs Foundation—that support the families of terrorists killed fighting in Gaza and suicide bombers in the West Bank.


Following the appointment of its current Secretary-General Ziad Nakhalah in 2018, PIJ deepened its ties with Iran. Nakhalah met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei as recently as December 2018. At that meeting, the supreme leader encouraged the group to continue fighting against Israel.


As Iran’s main proxy in Gaza, PIJ continues to promote the interests of Tehran over those of the Palestinian people.


Conclusion


PIJ’s continued aggression against Israel—coupled with its consistent support from the Iranian regime—has made the group an ever more potent player in the Palestinian arena.


The group’s strategy of challenging Hamas’ pragmatic acceptance of even short-term ceasefires with Israel is likely to exacerbate the precarious security and humanitarian situation impacting both Palestinians and Israelis. Thwarting PIJ’s nefarious activity constitutes yet another challenge for America’s and Israel’s interests in the Middle East.


Type: Memo, Near-East-Report Near East Report