Who is Ziyad al-Nakhalah, the Islamic Jihad's Beirut-based chief?

Born in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip in 1953, the father of six was first arrested by Israel in 1971 for his membership in the Arab Liberation Forces, a terrorist group.

House where Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Bahaa Abu Al-Ata was assassinated by the IDF (photo credit: MAJDI FATHI/TPS)
House where Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Bahaa Abu Al-Ata was assassinated by the IDF
(photo credit: MAJDI FATHI/TPS)
Ziyad Rushdi al-Nakhalah, secretary-general of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, is the only man who can stop the current wave of fighting between Israel and PIJ, Palestinian sources in the Gaza Strip said on Wednesday. There’s only one problem: he needs a green light from Iran.
The 66-year-old Nakhalah, who spends most of his time moving between Lebanon and Syria, will order his men to stop the rocket attacks on Israel only if Iran allows him to do so, the sources said, noting that he has “excellent and strong” relations with Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.
Shortly after the targeted killing by Israel of PIJ military commander Bahaa Abu al-Ata on Tuesday, Nakhalah declared that his group was “going to war” with Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he said, has “crossed all redlines.”
According to the sources, Nakhalah was the one who issued orders to PIJ’s Al-Quds Brigades to start firing rockets at Israel in retaliation for the assassination of al-Ata. “Al-Nakhalah is the only one who can order his men to halt the rocket attacks,” the sources added. “But he’s unlikely to do so unless he receives a green light from Tehran.”
Other sources in the Gaza Strip said that Egyptian intelligence officials contacted Nakhalah on Tuesday night in the context of their effort to reach a ceasefire between PIJ and Israel. The PIJ leaders, the sources said, told the Egyptians that it was premature to talk about a ceasefire “when the blood of the martyrs has not dried yet.”
Palestinians hold posters of Islamic Jihad chief Ziyad al-Nakhalah (right) and late Islamic Jihad founder Fathi Shikaki during a protest in Gaza City earlier this year. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)Palestinians hold posters of Islamic Jihad chief Ziyad al-Nakhalah (right) and late Islamic Jihad founder Fathi Shikaki during a protest in Gaza City earlier this year. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

The sources predicted that Nakhalah would eventually accept an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, but only if it appears as though Israel had “begged” for one.
“The assassination of al-Ata is a severe blow to Palestinian Islamic Jihad and its leader, al-Nakhalah,” the sources said. “That’s why they want to show the Palestinian public that they made Israel pay a heavy price for its crime.”
Moreover, Nakhalah sees the current round of fighting with Israel as an opportunity to strengthen PIJ’s standing among Palestinians. PIJ is the second-largest group in the Gaza Strip after Hamas. Although its numbers are much smaller than that of Hamas, PIJ is believed to be in possession of the same size arsenal of weapons as Hamas.
As of Wednesday noon, Hamas was still sitting on the fence, leaving PIJ alone in its military confrontation with Israel.
Hamas is reluctant to join the fighting, because it does not want to give Israel an excuse to “expand its aggression on the Gaza Strip,” sources close to Hamas explained. “For now, Hamas’s response has been limited to paying lip service to PIJ and its heroic sacrifices. If the Egyptians succeed in convincing al-Nakhalah to agree to a ceasefire, Hamas will be the first to welcome it. If, however, Israel escalates its attacks and starts targeting Hamas, Hamas will have no other choice but to respond.”
WHO IS Nakhalah, who holds the key to ending the current round of fighting with Israel?
Born in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip in 1953, the father of six was first arrested by Israel in 1971 for his membership in the Arab Liberation Forces, a terrorist group headed by Ziad al-Husseini. He was sentenced to life in prison – where he became fluent in Hebrew – but was released in a prisoner exchange agreement with Israel in 1985.
Nakhalah’s father, Rushdi, was killed during the joint Israeli-British-French attack on Egypt in response to the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956. The Gaza Strip back then was under Egyptian control.
Upon his release from Israeli prison, then-PIJ secretary-general Fathi Shikaki tasked Nakhalah with establishing in the Gaza Strip the group’s first so-called military wing.
Nakhalah was again arrested by Israel in April 1988, a few months after the eruption of the First Intifada. He was deported to Lebanon in August that year, when he was appointed PIJ’s unofficial envoy to Beirut.
After the assassination of Shikaki in October 1995 in Malta, PIJ’s advisory council elected Ramadan Abdallah Shalah as its leader, and elected Nakhalah as deputy secretary-general of PIJ.
In 2014, Nakhalah led his group’s delegation to the negotiations with the Egyptians that ended the seven-week Operation Protective Edge in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The operation came after Hamas fired rockets into Israel.
During the operation, Israel destroyed Nakhalah’s house in Gaza, killing his brother’s wife, Um Nidal, and her son, Mahmoud.
In the same year, the US State Department designated Nakhalah as a global terrorist and froze his property and interests in the US. The US also offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.
Nonetheless, the US move did not stop Nakhalah from ascending to the helm of PIJ. He was elected secretary-general of the terrorist group in April 2018, succeeding Shalah, who suffered a massive stroke and has since been hospitalized in Lebanon.
While relations between Hamas and Iran have witnessed tensions as a result of the movement’s refusal to support Tehran’s ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, after the eruption of the civil war in Syria, Nakhalah and PIJ have continued to maintain close ties with Iranian leaders.
Nakhalah is also believed to be closely associated with Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Quds Force. According to some reports, Soleimani is in charge of providing PIJ and Hamas with financial and military aid.
“Al-Nakhalah is the Palestinian Hassan Nasrallah,” said a Palestinian political analyst from the Gaza Strip, referring to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah secretary-general. “He and Nasrallah will never do anything without Iran’s approval. They know that their survival depends on Iran’s money and weapons.”
Despite his close relations with Iran and Hezbollah, the PIJ leader has also kept communication channels open with Egypt. Unlike Iran, the Egyptians are keen on preserving the ceasefire understandings reached earlier this year between the Gaza-based Palestinian groups and Israel.
Nakhalah is aware that PIJ cannot ignore Egypt’s national and security interests in the region. Saying no to Cairo’s mediation efforts could result in severe Egyptian sanctions on his group, including banning PIJ members and officials from leaving Gaza.
Furthermore, Nakhalah knows that Hamas has informed the Egyptians in the past 24 hours that it is not interested in an all-out war with Israel. That’s why the PIJ leader now has to find a way to convince his patrons in Tehran to agree to a new ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.