Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the second-largest armed terrorist faction in the Gaza Strip, announced at the end of last month that it had a new leader.
Ziad al-Nakhleh, formerly the deputy secretary-general of the Iranian-backed Palestinian group, was named as the successor to outgoing leader Ramadan Shalah.
Like Shalah, Nakhleh resides abroad, traveling back and forth between Syria and Iran. He will be PIJ’s third leader. Fathi Shiqaqi, the group’s founding leader, was reportedly killed by Israel in Malta in 1995. After that assassination, Nakhleh was appointed as PIJ’s deputy leader and remained in that position until becoming its head in recent weeks.
He will now remotely lead a powerful and well-armed guerilla-terrorist army that has its own arsenal of rockets in Gaza, weapons-production centers, Gazan battalions and terror tunnels. PIJ and Hamas are the only two Gazan factions that possess in their inventories mid-range locally produced rockets of the type that were fired in the middle of the night on Oct. 17 targeting Beersheva, destroying a home, and central Israel. PIJ has denied responsibility for the attack, which could plunge Gaza into a new escalation.
Nakhleh will run PIJ with the assistance of his Gaza-based newly appointed deputy secretary-general, Mohammed Al-Hindi.
‘He will not make life easy for Hamas’
Brig.-Gen. (Res.) Alon Eviatar, an expert on the Palestinian arena and a former adviser to Israel’s Coordination Unit for Government Activities in the Territories, told JNS that Nakhleh “is a central and dominant figure, cut from the cloth of Islamic Jihad—the front and center symbol of the jihad. He is a loyal ally to the Iranians and belongs to them.”
“There are those who claim he outflanks Ramadan Shalah [the former secretary-general of the organization] from ‘the right,’ and as a result, it is fair to assume that he will not make life easy for Hamas and will seek to satisfy the Iranians,” said Eviatar.
Relations between PIJ and Hamas are marked by combination of tension and cooperation. While PIJ is currently complying with Hamas’s demand that all Gazan groups observe a ceasefire with Israel, PIJ has in the past undermined Hamas’s rule and dragged it into escalations with Israel by initiating border bombings and rocket attacks, drawing Israeli return fire.
For now, Hamas aims to limit conflict with Israel to a “low-flame” situation, as it seeks to pressure Israel into agreeing to lift security restrictions on Gaza. PIJ could, however, act as “lighter in the gas station,” and use its arsenal of weapons to plunge Gaza into conflict, as it has done in the past. The question of whether it did this in the Oct. 17 rocket attack remains open.
Nakhleh, who was born in Gaza in 1953, was one of the founding members of PIJ in the 1980s.
Sentenced to life in prison by Israel in 1971, he was released 14 years later as part of the 1985 Jibril prisoner exchange between Israel and the PFLP-GC terror group. He was rearrested by Israel in 1988 and expelled to Lebanon.
Nakhleh’s organization serves as Iran’s direct proxy in Gaza, receiving funds, and combat and weapons’ assistance. The organization openly subscribes to Shi’ite Iran’s Khomenist radical ideology, making it unique among Palestinian armed groups in that regard.
Hamas, for its part, views itself as a Palestinian branch of the hardline Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, and its relationship with Shi’ite Iran is a marriage of convenience, due to a lack of better regional sponsors. In that regard, Hamas’s ideological leanings are different than those of PIJ.
PIJ’s founder and first leader, Shiqaqi, has praised Iran’s Shi’ite Islamic revolution in his numerous works. Other Sunni groups tend to take a far more suspicious view of Iran’s Shi’ite Islamist agenda.
Nakhleh’s appointment did not pass off smoothly, according to the Asharq Al-Awsat Arabic newspaper, which is based in London, as two other candidates were disqualified by a PIJ Supervisory committee just days before a vote was taken.
“The move sparked a serious dispute among senior movement leaders, who accused influential figures of overriding the movement’s hierarchy,” the report said.
The report also quotes PIJ insiders as saying that “Iran was pleased with Nakhleh’s election, which left Mohammed al-Hindi with the post of deputy secretary-general,” adding that “Iran favors Nakhleh over Hindi, given the latter’s close positions to Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Hamas movement.”