The women's branch of Islamic Jihad gather to show their support for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails in front of International Committee of the Red Cross office in Gaza City on December 17, 2018. Photo: Ali Jadallah / Anadolu Agency

The latest escalation in Gaza could be a blessing-in-disguise for the forgotten militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Slipping into oblivion and irrelevance in recent years, the once formidable Islamist group joined its longtime ally Hamas in repelling Israeli attacks on the besieged Gaza Strip earlier this month.

No less than 600 rockets were fired, with Islamic Jihad boasting that at least one of them was its own production “tested on the Zionist enemy”. The group added that two of its members were killed by the Israeli offensive.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s participation in the operation, and its back-to-back statements about rockets and martyrs, was intended to remind the Palestinian street that the group was still in operation — and part of the Iran-led “Axis of Resistance”, according to Palestinian political sources in Damascus informed about political machinations in the strip.

The group had slipped out of the public eye in recent years, due to the illness of its former secretary-general and its decision to keep a low profile in inter-Arab feuds. It refused to take sides with Turkey and Qatar as Hamas had done and stood clear from a confrontation with both states due to its strong relations with Iran.

Hamas on the other hand, parted ways with Damascus in mid-2011, putting its weight behind the Syrian opposition and specifically, behind the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been trying to topple the Syrian regime since 1964. Its offices were shut down, and its property confiscated after its Damascus-based chief Khaled Meshaal defected to Doha, believing that regime collapse in Syria was imminent.

Islamic Jihad remained quiet, maintaining low profile ties with Damascus while silently moving its activities to Hezbollah territory in Lebanon, where it was easier to operate and safer than wartime Damascus.

Strategic differences

Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas differ in strategy, rather than ideology. Both are committed to an Islamic state and to the destruction of the Israeli state. In recent years, both have softened their end-objective, settling for the 1967 borders of Palestine, rather than the pre-Israel ones of 1948.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad is less affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and commands more respect than its Islamic affiliate since — unlike Hamas — it has never had the chance to try or fail in government. Over the past 12 years, Hamas lost much of its former support within Gaza due to its inability to alleviate the day-to-day suffering of Palestinians. It also failed to lift the siege of Gaza, and thus, to provide jobs and wages to its constituency.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad is now aiming to remind Iran of its usefulness, hoping to attract financial assistance again that had nearly dried up since 2011. The Iranians were more focused on bankrolling Hezbollah in the Syrian battlefield than in supporting Palestinian or Iraqi affiliates not directly involved in that strategic conflict.

The militant group’s new command, elected to office last September, seem to be intent on rectifying this. The new command is composed of nine people, who are mostly civilian writers and intellectuals, rather than military figures trained in guerrilla warfare. Five live abroad, making them automatically rejected by young Palestinians in Gaza, who complain that they know nothing of the hardships of the besieged strip.

So the latest military operation was Islamic Jihad’s way of saying that they are still present inside Gaza, still aware of the people’s grievances, and capable of defending them against Israeli aggression.

Put on hit list

The new Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ziad Nakhaleh (Abu Tarek) invested heavily in the Gaza operation — his premier feat since replacing Ramadan Shallah, the former secretary-general who led the movement since the assassination of its founder in October 1995.

Unlike Shallah, who studied banking and finance at Durham University in the UK and taught at the University of South Florida, the new chief was educated at the schools and institutes of Gaza, holding no higher than a teaching diploma. Both were natives of Gaza, but only Nakhaleh spent time in Israel jails — a total of 14 years — unlike Shallah, who led the movement from abroad, spending most of his time in Damascus.

Nakhaleh helped co-found Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s military wing, the Quds Brigade, but was never among its commanders. He was arrested for his role in the first intifada and exiled to Lebanon, where he became friends with Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah, and the Syrian government, which hosted him until 2011. Unlike Khaled Meshaal of Hamas, he refused to take sides during the Syrian conflict, and steered clear from the Muslim Brotherhood regime of Egypt, making sure to stand at arms-length from the Qataris and Turks, who were bankrolling the armed Syrian opposition.

In 2014, a $5 million reward was announced by the United States, for any person who helped in Nakhaleh’s arrest. This month, he was placed on Benjamin Netanyahu’s hit list, accused of being behind the escalation in Gaza. Far from defaming him, this was music to his ears, giving him additional credentials needed to shine in Gaza — and Iran. 

One of Nakhaleh’s worries, however, is his deputy Mohammad al-Hindi, who had his eyes set on Nakhaleh’s post, seeing himself as far more worthy of the job. One of the early founders of the group, he expected to win last September’s elections, but came in third after Nakhaleh and Akram Ajouri, the former military adviser to Fathi al-Shaqaqi and head of the group’s military command in the West Bank. Hindi is still constantly trying to market himself as a leader-in-waiting, both in Tehran and Moscow, investing in his popularity in Gaza, which exceeds that of the new secretary-general.

Other figures are more cosmetic, like Khaled Batsh, an Islamic Jihad veteran who is popular for his social and charity work in the mosques of Gaza, or Abu Taha, a prominent writer and political analyst, and Walid Qitati, who holds a PhD in psychology from Aden University in Yemen. Topping them all, however, is the all-time Iran favorite Baha Abu Ata, who is not a member of the new command but surpasses all its members in popularity and influence.

Abu Ata has been singled out by the Israelis as the military mind behind the latest operation in Gaza, in his capacity as commander of the Quds Brigade. He is the new leadership’s real asset in Gaza — the one person who all nine members are cuddling up to now, to prove worthy of still being part of the “Axis of Resistance”. Abu Ata is very close to Hezbollah and also considered a strategic partner in jihad with Hamas’ new leadership, Yehia Sinwar and Mohammad Deif, who in turn, are on good terms with the Syrians.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad does not seem to have the intention, let alone capability of toppling Hamas at present, but this could change if street demonstrations against the ruling organization persist and grow.

Negotiations with Netanyahu have only further tarnished the image of Hamas among the Palestinian public as it fails to deliver a better life for residents of Gaza. Palestinian Islamic Jihad is watching these developments with great attention — and seeking to avoid making the same mistake. 

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