Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) is often described as the most militant of the main Palestinian resistance factions yet, when compared with the likes of Hamas and Fatah, little is known about it, especially in Western media and academia. The author of A History of Palestinian Islamic Jihad: Faith, Awareness, and Revolution in the Middle East, Erik Skare, points out that there have been previous studies on the movement in the English language, but they have been limited in their scope or focussed on particular topics instead of Islamic Jihad as a whole. As such, there has been a gap in the literature, until now.
Building on a variety of sources, including its own publications, historical accounts, and interviews (some of which the author carried out with the group’s political bureau in Lebanon), the author has sought to answer the question, “Why PIJ?” Extensive use of martyr biographies also enabled him to “develop a bottom-up analysis” of the movement.
A History of Palestinian Islamic Jihad… is divided into three sections, each relating to important periods. The first explores the history and formation of the movement following the 1967 Six-Day War through to the First Intifada in the late eighties. This is followed by the PIJ’s decline and decreasing relevance throughout the 1990s; and finally, the movement’s resurgence with the Second Intifada in 2000 and the ensuing political and regional developments over almost two decades.
Part of the mystery surrounding the movement is because, unlike Hamas, it emerged as a “revolutionary, small and anti-establishment” movement and can be distinguished by its “revolutionary vanguardism through which it has no desire to become a broad populist mass movement”. Skare takes the reader back to PIJ’s genesis in Egypt where the founding fathers, Palestinian students, and intellectuals formed what would become its “nucleus” upon returning to Gaza in the early 1980s.
The Arab defeat in the Six-Day War had a particularly profound effect on Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s founder, Fathi Al-Shiqaqi. Like several other students at the time, he embraced secular ideologies like Nasserism initially before turning to Islamism as he “was not able to find the answers to the defeat in Nasserist thought and ideology. Instead, he found his answers in religion.” Although there were initial interactions with the well-established Muslim Brotherhood, they’d eventually part ways over differences about how to liberate the Palestinian homeland, especially as the latter was accused of being too passive and ignoring the armed struggle. “It was only when the issue of armed struggle could not be resolved that the nucleus finally terminated its political work within the Brotherhood and developed into an independent organisation,” writes Skare.
The study circles that Al-Shiqaqi and others participated in would be crucial for the formation of what would become PIJ. They discussed and debated history, anti-colonial literature, and Islamist theory. This would become evident in his perception of the plight of the Palestinians, not rooted simply in the establishment of Israel in 1948, but “almost 200 years earlier with the advent of Western imperialism.” Indeed, the conflict was seen not as one between the West and Islam per se, but rather between the colonial West and the Global South. This is not to say that there was no religious dimension to the movement’s ideology; the Palestinian cause was also understood through a Qur’anic dimension with the firm belief that Palestine is to be liberated by divine predestination.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s development in occupied Gaza in the 1980s is elaborated upon in-depth by Skare, with particular attention to recruitment and its organisational structure. It forged ties with the local population through networks such as the mosques and the Islamic University of Gaza. Importantly, it also recruited former secular-nationalist militants inside Israeli prisons. The movement was always more successful in recruiting within Gaza than it was in the West Bank, which had a distinct political culture compared with that in Gaza. Nevertheless, it had a presence there from the 1990s, although recruitment was more along with ties of kinship and concentrated in cells in Hebron, Jenin, and Tulkarem.
The Muslim Brotherhood was initially not concerned with liberation by armed struggle; it focused on social and religious reform, although the Gaza-based Hamas emerged in 1987 and was committed to military operations. However, the PIJ carried out its own first operations in 1984, five years before Hamas did. Once Hamas took up arms, though, the two movements became almost identical. According to Skare, “it is not unlikely that Hamas commenced using violence partly because it feared being ousted by PIJ in the mid-1980s.”
The eventual deportation to Lebanon in the late 1980s of Al-Shiqaqi and a number of other key Palestinian Islamic Jihad figures, including the movement’s spiritual guide, Abd Al-Aziz Awda, proved to be counterproductive for Israel, as it propelled the movement into far-reaching alliances which resulted in “economic aid and weapons from Iran, a sanctuary in Syria, and training camps provided by Hezbollah”. Support from Tehran led some to accuse the movement of being crypto-Shia and Iranian proxies. However, this has been largely exaggerated. Al-Shiqaqi had written previously on the Islamic Revolution and didn’t entertain sectarianism; he favoured Islamic unity.
While Islamic Jihad became more sophisticated militarily and organised structurally compared with its earlier, almost decentralised, operational beginnings, the latter also meant that it was more susceptible to Israeli counterinsurgency efforts with the assassination and arrest of key members. Yet, the author argues, while the movement experienced a decline in the 1990s, the Second Intifada not only saw a resurgence, but also saw it becoming the third largest Palestinian armed movement, and the second only to Hamas in Gaza. Whenever there has been broad popular support for armed struggle, says Skare, so too have there been popular approval ratings for Islamic Jihad, whose raison d'être was armed struggle.
Interesting comparisons with Hamas are made with regards to PIJ’s commitment and insistence on continued military engagement. Hamas opted to participate in politics and won the 2006 elections in Palestine, which tended to hamper both its will and ability to continue the armed struggle. Unsurprisingly, there were several clashes on the ground between the two factions, especially as Hamas tried unsuccessfully to monopolise the use of legitimate resistance in Gaza. The impact of the Arab Spring and especially the conflict in Syria also saw the two factions taking diverging stances, partly so as not to alienate their respective patrons and backers.
A History of Palestinian Islamic Jihad… is a comprehensive study into the somewhat understudied movement. As the author admits, research has been limited by the difficulties of access to Gaza and the West Bank, which no doubt would have supplemented and strengthened this work. At times, the book can be confusing due to the plethora of personalities referenced, but this also represents strength and showcases how much research went into it.
PIJ splinter group Al-Sabireen, which is said to be made up of Shia converts in Gaza, is mentioned briefly. It would have been interesting to learn more about them, although this could perhaps be done as literature on the movement grows.
By the end of the book, the reader will have a sense of not only how Palestinian Islamic Jihad came to be, but also why it still exists, despite often being overshadowed by the larger Hamas. As Skare explains, quoting a member of the movement’s political bureau, Anwar Abu Taha, “PIJ is not a political movement engaging in the military field, it is a military movement engaging in the political field.” As long as there is a need for national liberation through armed struggle, the PIJ will thus continue to exist.