In February 2003, US attorney-general John Ashcroft announced the indictment of the leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in North America, Sami Al-Arian. The indictment was on 17 counts.
In his announcement, the attorney-general revealed that during the course of its investigation, the US Justice Department had discovered a previously unknown document called “Manifesto of the Islamic Jihad in Palestine.” Declaring that the PIJ “is one of the most violent terrorist organizations in the world,” Ashcroft, quoting from the manifesto, described the organization’s aims.
The PIJ rejects “any peaceful solution to the Palestinian cause” and affirms “the jihad solution and the martyrdom style as the only choice for liberation.” Referring to the United States as “the Great-Satan America,” the manifesto states that the sole purpose of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is to destroy Israel and end all Western influence in the region.
In fact, the PIJ has always identified one further step. Having eliminated Israel, the organization intends to replace it with a hardline Sunni Islamist state stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.
Meeting aggression with aggression
Active since the early 1980s, for much of the time the PIJ scarcely figured in the terrorist big league. Media attention was mainly focused on al-Qaeda, ISIS, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hamas and Hezbollah. PIJ would spring to prominence only occasionally when it promulgated some particularly heinous atrocity.
That changed on May 2, when prominent PIJ leader Khader Adnan, on hunger strike in an Israeli jail, died after refusing to eat for 87 days. Adnan, who had been in and out of Israeli prisons some 12 times over the years, had been charged with inciting violence. The PIJ decided to register their anger at his death by launching over 100 rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel, regardless of where they landed or who they killed or injured.
The IDF decided to meet aggression with aggression, and on May 9 targeted and killed three leading PIJ figures. During the subsequent conflict, 15 other PIJ terrorists were killed as Israel struck 371 terrorist targets, including PIJ command posts, rocket facilities, and attack tunnels.
The PIJ, suddenly in the world’s headlines, retaliated by firing nearly 1,500 rockets from Gaza into Israel. Iron Dome air defenses successfully intercepted most, but there were three direct hits – one in Sderot, another on a Rehovot apartment building, killing an 80-year-old woman, and a third that killed a Gazan man working in open fields in Israel.
The media reported that hundreds of PIJ rockets launched against Israel misfired and landed inside the Gaza Strip. The IDF believes that about a quarter of all the missiles fell short. In one incident, two teenagers were killed when a failed rocket crashed into a residential area of Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza.
THE PIJ, apparently firmly established and in the ascendant, is in fact positioned on shaky ground. Its onslaught on Israel, based as it is in Gaza, depends on the continued tolerance of Hamas, while for its finances and military supplies it is wholly reliant on Iran. Neither is rock solid in its support.
The PIJ is not entirely under the thumb of Hamas. Its headquarters are in Damascus, and while its senior leadership directs policy also from Lebanon, its active military operations against Israel are centered in the Gaza Strip. Gaza, of course, is in the iron grip of Hamas. Is there room for two active terrorist bodies in the same small parcel of land?
Apparently so, for the PIJ is clearly tolerated by Hamas and allowed to carry out its anti-Israel operations. But all is not sweetness and light between the two bodies. During the recent flare-up, Hamas provided no facilities or equipment to the PIJ, and it stayed out of the conflict. Moreover, rumor has it that Hamas pressed the PIJ to agree an early ceasefire. Commentators noted that in celebrating its supposed achievements during the conflict, PIJ thanked Iran, Hezbollah, and Qatar by name, but did not mention Hamas.
Hamas and the PIJ certainly have the common aim of attacking Israel indiscriminately, but there are key differences between them. PIJ, which is focused solely on military confrontations, has the most to gain from promulgating violence against Israel, while Hamas, the civilian government in Gaza, has the most to lose. In the past, escalations between Israel and the PIJ have jeopardized Hamas’s cash flow from its ally Qatar, decimating public services and vital infrastructure.
So Hamas has recently sought to keep a lid on conflict with Israel, aware that it could cost thousands of Gazans permits to work inside Israel, and deepen the fatigue of a population that has already suffered four devastating wars. But to preserve its reputation as the main Palestinian resistance movement, Hamas has professed support for its rival through an umbrella group known as the “joint operations room.”
“Publicly, Hamas has to support Islamic Jihad,” said Erik Skare, author of a book on the group’s history and a researcher at the University of Oslo. “But it’s also telling them… to avoid a major escalation. It is urging Islamic Jihad to show restraint.”
PIJ, A Sunni body, which sprang from the loins of the Muslim Brotherhood, is largely financed, equipped and supported by the leading Shi’ite state in the region, namely Iran. The bond uniting them – a hatred of the US and a desire to remove the state of Israel from the Middle East – is sufficiently strong at present to overcome their fundamental religious differences. Should they ever come close to achieving their common purpose, though, their alliance could never survive.
Indeed the fatal flaw in their relationship was publicly revealed back in May 2015. When Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), assembled a coalition to oppose Iran’s proxy, the Houthis, from taking over Yemen, Iran expected full-hearted support from the PIJ. But the opposing forces on the ground represented to many Muslims the eternal Sunni-Shia conflict.
The PIJ, caught between the rock of supporting a Shi’ite militia, and the hard place of offending Iran, decided to stay neutral. The Iranian leadership was furious and, well aware that the PIJ was heavily dependent on Iranian finance, cut off its funding. The Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds revealed that Iran switched its support to an offshoot of the PIJ called as-Sabinn (Arabic for “The Patient Ones”).
The freeze lasted more than a year. It was only in mid-2016, following a visit to Iran by the organization’s then-leader, Ramadan Shalah, that Iran renewed its full support for the PIJ.
A boundless hatred of Israel
The PIJ’s hatred of Israel is boundless, and in its depraved operations it targets all Israelis without distinction. Indeed in the 1990s, and again during the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005, the PIJ positively targeted civilians. One of its deadliest terror attacks was the suicide bombing at Maxim restaurant in 2003, in which 21 civilians, including the elderly and young children, were murdered. The PIJ viewed the deaths of the civilians as a great operational success.
Then came the Netanya mall bombing in 2005, which killed five Israelis and wounded 50; a 2006 suicide bombing on a Tel Aviv shwarma restaurant, which killed 11 and injured 70; and the shooting at the Max Brenner Café in Tel Aviv in June 2016, which left four people dead and seven others injured.
For Israel, faced with an enemy like the PIJ, which explicitly rejects any peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, there can be only one objective – to identify and exploit its weaknesses, and to defeat it.
The writer is the Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020. Follow him at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com.