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Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ)

Updated: Mar 20


Insurgency overview


Harakat al-Jihād al-Islāmi fi Filastīn (حركة الجهاد الإسلامي في فلسطين), also known as Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), is a radical Sunni Islamic organization founded in the Gaza Strip with the aim of forming a Palestinian Islamic state. The PIJ was founded in the Gaza Strip in 1984 and its militancy has always been militarily, politically and financially supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Following the view of the organization, rather than a nationalist core, the Palestine question has mainly religious importance and Islam is indissolubly related to the State of Palestine. 



History and Foundations


The first structure of the PIJ was established in the Gaza Strip in November 1981. At the time the Palestinian political context was entirely dominated by secularized nationalist forces and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), since 1974, was the sole representative of the Palestinian people internationally recognized. In this political scenario, a part of Palestinian society began to shift toward Sunni organizations, like the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Shiite Iranian opposition led by Khomeini (2). From the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood, Fathi Ibrahim Abdulaziz Shaqaqi and Abd Al Aziz Awda emerged. 


They came across fundamentalist Islamist ideas while they were university students in Egypt and later became the two co-founders of PIJ. In 1979 Shaqaqi was arrested in Egypt for his political Salafist activity and for the publication of a text in which he urged all Sunnis to support the Islamic Revolution that was overwhelming Iran. After prison and his return to Gaza, Shaqaqi established with Awda the first structure of PIJ (10).  The first archetype of the Awda and Shaqaqi organization, called al-Tāli'aʿ al-Islāmiyyah (the Islamic Vanguard) had an innovative view of the eternal battle against the Jewish state, perceived as a religious war. During the First Intifada (1987 - 1993) the PIJ strongly influenced Hamas, the Gaza branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been pushed towards a religious perception of its armed struggle against Israel (2).


In 1988 the leader of the PIJ was expelled from Gaza by Israeli authorities and founded an exile directorial unit in Damascus, from where the organization’s jihad continued. In 1993 the historic Oslo Agreement was signed: the PLO recognized the State of Israel, and the Jewish State allowed the creation of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Both Hamas and PIJ categorically rejected the Oslo Agreement and clashed with PLO in PNA’s territories. Shaqaqi considered the treaty a deception that would allow Israel to lock out Palestinians from an economic and security point of view (8). In this context, the leader of the PIJ was killed by Mossad in Cyprus, after returning from a visit with Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 1994. At the outbreak of the al-Aqsā intifada, the PIJ increased the frequency and intensity of its actions, especially through suicide attacks. This profoundly compromised the peace treaties in progress at the time (2).


With the Second Intifada outbreak, the PIJ realized that, from a cost-calculation perspective, suicide attacks were the most cost-effective weapon. Due to this tactical consideration, the organization carried out a large number of terrorist actions against Israeli citizens until 2006 (2). PIJ boycotted the Palestinian Legislative Election both in 1996 and 2006 due to Palestinian democracy’s structural deficiencies (9). PIJ fighters repeatedly directly faced the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) during the various invasions of Gaza. Despite the harsh fighting, the IDF never managed to behead the leader of the organization.  The Gaza Strip wars of 2012, 2019 and 2022 managed to weaken PIJ and destroyed part of its infrastructure (1). On October 7th 2023, PIJ and al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, conducted the al-Aqsa Flood operation– a massive joint military offensive on Israeli territory. The October 7 attack hit the world not only for its significant qualitative and quantitative goals but also due to the brutality of the action, which resulted in over 1000 Israeli casualties and the taking of 250 prisoners (9). Israel violently responded with a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip. Due to the ongoing Israeli attack, the PIJ’s future is still unclear. 



Objectives and Ideology


During the 1970s, the Muslim Brotherhood maintained a moderate line over the Palestinian conflict while the PIJ approach and tactic deeply changed at the end of the decade with Shaqaqi and Awda’s interest in the Iranian Islamic Revolution (2). From the victorious experience of the Khomeinist revolution, the PIJ understood that overthrowing the Israeli regime was not enough but above all, it is necessary to delineate a new Islamic state project: PIJ’s mission of Palestinian national liberation has to be read as part of the great Islamic revolution for the creation of a single Caliphate throughout the Middle East (10). In this political interpretation the right sources of legislation, like the Quran, the Sunna and Ulama’s consensus, will guarantee justice and freedom (8). Considering this perspective, the PIJ would follow a pan-Islamist approach. Already in the 1980s, the PIJ defined the fight against the Israeli state with the term jihad, giving priority to the religious aspect over the national one (2).


Shaqaqi’s view on Islam went beyond the religious belief. Religion is considered a cultural and political system that should be the desirable core of the Palestinian national topic and the cultural war against the West. This vision led Shaqaqi to criticize secularized Arab nationalism on several occasions, mainly due to its detachment from Islam. This fragmentation would be a dangerous ideological issue because it would provoke a division in the Arab front and give a tactical advantage to the West (10). The failures of nationalist regimes with socialist and anti-religious tones, such as Nasser's Egypt or the Ba'athist Syrian regime, would confirm the PIJ’s disagreement toward secularized Arab nationalism. Despite that Shaqaqi has been an excellent example of pragmatism and reconciliation within the Palestinian framework (10).



Military and Political Abilities


The PIJ has always been a background actor due to the bulky Hamas presence. Despite that, the growth process has never stopped and nowadays PIJ is rightly considered a leading Palestinian resistance organization, the third largest in Palestine after Fatah and Hamas and the second one in Gaza. Although the US State Department has stated that PIJ can count on just 1000 units, other internal and external sources reported bigger numbers, with between 8000 and 10000 ready-to-fight militants (2).


The PIJ, like most Palestinian organizations, has a military wing called the al-Quds Brigades (The Jerusalem Brigades). The al-Quds Brigades are divided into cells with their own commanders, with a concrete presence in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip (1). The Brigades presents a decentralized structure. Even if Israel manages to kill the military leader he would be immediately replaced by a lower-level command and the organization's efficiency would not be heavily weakened (1). The al-Quds Brigades adopted unconventional warfare tools, establishing a cyber unit called the Quds Banner. This branch aims to face and prevent eventual Israeli actions of espionage, surveillance, hacking and attacks on cyber infrastructures (1). In recent times, the al-Quds Brigades engaged mainly in rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip despite its participation in the “al-Aqsa Flood” military offensive on October 7th (2). Despite the overwhelming and ultra-sophisticated Israel military capacity, the organization never stopped to strengthen its ranks and as of now,  no Israeli military operation has managed to eliminate PIJ infrastructure (1).


The PIJ is not just a paramilitary organization. Over the decades, the Palestinian group has increasingly developed widespread social infrastructures with intensity and efficiency. Islamic Jihad is present in Gaza through the control of some mosques, the publication of various newspapers and the presence in universities through student associations, the main one is called al-Rābita al-Islāmiyya (the Islamic Link) (2). Through these activities, PIJ recruits new members to employ in its armed resistance. University associations are particularly effective in pursuing this goal. In 2015 an Al-Quds University student member of al-Rābita al-Islāmiyya stabbed to death two Israelis and wounded two more. This event led to a new wave of lone-wolf attacks, mainly through knives, which took the name of Al-Quds Intifada or Knives intifada. In 2015, the PIJ was directly accountable for 5% of all lone-wolf attacks against Israel (2).


Iran’s long-term missile development project has become a prime pillar of the Islamic Republic’s military posture and has primarily focused on Assad’s regime in Syria and other non-state actors in Iran’s sphere of influence, like Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip (6). Although the support for these regional actors began in the early 1980s, just in the last twenty years the Iranian regime has begun to provide relevant weapons systems, providing heavy-artillery rockets and strategic ballistic missiles as well as contributing to significantly develop their home-production capacity and technical know-how (6). Due to a fluctuating relationship with Hamas, PIJ is indeed more closely linked to Iran in the Gaza Strip and has been equipped with wide artillery-rocket technology (5)


Iranian rocket proliferation fueled the struggles of Palestinian resistance and consisted in its core strategy during several military confrontations with Israel over the last decade. In 2012 both Hamas and PIJ struck Tel Aviv with Fajr-5 rockets, which have been smuggled to Gaza through the Egyptian border. Even if external supply was a key aspect, PIJ moved its focus to domestic production (6).  Moreover, several sources claim that Iran provided training to PIJ cadres in the production of key propellant components (5). Due to the massive Iranian aid, the Sunni group has overcome the primitive short-range artillery, developing in a few years long-range rockets (6)


Recent leaks not independently verified would indicate that Teheran equipped PIJ with an unguided system, such as the Jihad and Imad and heavy artillery rockets, the Badr-3, which has been tested and developed on Iranian soil and has a range of up to 160 km (1).  The latter system is significantly less complex than other rocket artillery owned by Iranian armed forces. It is highly likely that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), considered the main organization responsible for Iranian missile proliferation efforts, designed the Badr-3 system with a simple design specifically to encourage local production by proxy allies. Similarly to the Badr-3 case, also the PIJ’s 225 mm precision-guided missile was first developed inside Iran and later optimized for proxy production in Gaza (5). It’s estimated that al-Quds Brigades possessed from 6000 to 8000 short- and long-range missiles before October 7th (1).



Approach to Resistance


The suicide attack strategy was raised around the 1993-2000 period, in the prelude of the Second Intifada. During these years the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel were engaged in the Oslo Agreement process, to obtain a nonviolent resolution. Both PA internal opponents, Hamas and PIJ entirely rejected the political process and carried out more than 30 suicide actions. (7)


Suicide bombing attacks became a hallmark of PIJ’s milestones. The planning and the actuation of this tactic attained different goals, like obtaining revenge for unprecedented anti-Palestinian pogroms, reducing the casualties gap between the two sides, fighting Arafat’s political hegemony and convincing Palestinian society that armed terrorism was the correct way of struggle. Moreover, suicide attacks are cheap and easy to organize and overall deadly and efficient. Due to these features, suicide terrorism is one of PIJ’s preferred tactics (7).


The method reached its peak and achieved a new dimension with the outbreak of the Second Intifada.


Figure 2: Schweitzer Yoram, (2010), “The Rise And The Fall Of Suicide Bombing In The Second Intifada“.


The massive use of suicide attacks led to the birth of the myths of the martyrs among Palestinian resistance, redacting martyr biographies with a clear propagandistic purpose (9). This wave of terrorism overcame the goal of causing death, suffering and destruction and became a psychological weapon against Israeli society’s morale in its daily life (7).


Despite PIJ martyrdom, the organization keeps a pragmatic view over this practice: immediately preceding the Israeli military invasion of Jenin in 2002, the fighters decided to withdraw to preserve the continuity of the organization instead of being martyrized facing the enemy (9).


International Relations and Potential Alliances


PIJ is the closest actor connected to Iran in Palestine and a key organization in the so-called Axis of Resistance, the set of proxy groups and actors militarily and politically linked to the Islamic Republic. The Axis of Resistance, which was born from the mind of Qasem Soleimani, has the aim of cultivating Iranian regional interests in the Middle East and includes Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in Gaza Strip, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Shiite militias linked to Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) in Iraq, the Houthi-Ansar Allah Movement in Yemen and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Despite the common system of alliances, PIJ has never sided with the Houthis in the Saudi and UAE aggression in the context of the Yemen civil war (2). Despite the obvious ideological affinities, the relations between Hamas and the PIJ have not always been linear. Disputes are however almost entirely practical rather than ideological. Nonetheless, Hamas and PIJ often conduct joint operations, like the October 7th terrorist attack against Israeli kibbutz (9). Furthermore, PIJ always cultivated strict ties and support with Jenin and Nablus Brigades in West Bank territories (1).



Works Cited (Chicago Style)

(1). Abuamer Majd & Alarabeed Wadee, (2022), “The Israeli War on Palestinian Islamic Jihad: Unity of the Arenas Battle and its Strategic Implications”, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Strategic Paper No. 6. https://www.dohainstitute.org/en/PoliticalStudies/Pages/the-israeli-war-on-islamic-jihad-in-palestine.aspx


(2). Bartal Shaul, (2023), “Palestinian Islamic Jihad: Between Nationalism and Religion”, The Journal of the Middle East and Africa, 14:2, 117-137, DOI: 10.1080/21520844.2022.2146400.


(3). Benmelech Efraim & Berrebi Claude, (2007), “Human Capital and the Productivity of Suicide Bombers”, Journal of Economic Perspective, Volume 21, No. 3, Summer 2007, Pages 223-238.

https://web.archive.org/web/20110725072602/http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/benmelech/files/JEP_0807.pdf


(4). Gupta Dipak K. & Mundra Kusum., (2005), “Suicide Bombing as a Strategic Weapon: An Empirical Investigation of Hamas and Islamic Jihad”, Terrorism and Political Violence, 17:573–598. https://doi.org/10.1080/09546550500189895 


(5). Hinz Fabian, (2021), “The International Institute for Strategic Studies. Missile Multinational: Iran’s New Approach to Missile Proliferation”, Research Paper.  1 https://www.iiss.org/globalassets/media-library---content--migration/files/research-papers/irans-new-approach-to-missile-proliferation.pdf


(6). Hinz Fabian, (2021), “The International Institute for Strategic Studies. Open-Source Analysis of Iran’s Missile and UAV Capabilities and Proliferation”, Research Paper. 2 https://www.iiss.org/globalassets/media-library---content--migration/files/research-papers/open-source-analysis-of-irans-missile-and-uav-capabilities-and-proliferation.pdf


(7). Schweitzer Yoram, (2010), “The Rise And The Fall Of Suicide Bombing In The Second Intifada“, Strategic Assessment, Volume 13, No. 3, 39-49, October 2010. https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/135877/full_text.pdf


(8). Skare Erik, (2021), “Controlling the State in the Political Theory of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad”, Religions 12. 1 DOI: 10.3390/rel12111010


(9). Skare Erik, (2023), “Texts or Praxes: How Do We Best Understand Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad After October 7?”, CTC Sentinel, October/November 2023, Volume 16, Issue 10. 2 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/375993124_Texts_or_Praxes_How_Do_We_Best_Understand_Hamas_and_Palestinian_Islamic_Jihad_After_October_7 


(10). Zreik Raef, & Mustafa Mohanad, (2021), “The Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement. Religion, Secularism & Political Belonging”, Leerom Medovoi and Elizabeth Bentley, Eds. https://www.academia.edu/70259868/The_Palestinian_Islamic_Jihad_Movement



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