By Hani Albasoos
May 15, 2015
Long seen as a violent organization, Palestinian Islamic Jihad has been reinventing itself. Founded to resist Israel through armed means and classified by the United States as a terrorist organization, the PIJ has added diplomacy and social services to its toolkit – and this approach is showing some results.
International actors, who had ignored the PIJ or treated it as a pariah, are now including it in their own diplomatic calculations. Although the movement still actively deploys violence in support of its vision of Palestinian liberation, it is showing signs of broadening its mission and moving slowly down the same road taken earlier by Fatah and then Hamas.
At the national level, the PIJ has established a number of nonprofit research and advocacy groups that tackle political and security issues as well as social and economic development. In the past few years, the PIJ has successfully positioned itself as a sociopolitical movement by investing in humanitarian relief, social welfare and rescue operations. Following the latest Israel-Gaza war, for example, the group built shelters, distributed food parcels and played a key role in rescuing people trapped under rubble. Although no estimates are available for the number of its social workers and organizations, the movement has ramped up its budget to address mounting humanitarian concerns in Gaza.
The first signs of the PIJ’s new approach came after the group decided to take part in the Palestinian reconciliation process in 2005. Then in 2011 it agreed to participate in the temporary steering committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Previously, the PIJ had frequently condemned the PLO’s relations with Israel and accused it of corruption. The PIJ had also rejected participation in Palestinian elections for the Legislative Council – both in 1996 and 2006 – where it was believed to be under the umbrella of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But the movement is now showing its willingness to compete for seats in the Palestinian National Council in future elections.
Eight years of Palestinian political division led by Fatah and Hamas had created a political vacuum. After many failed attempts by Arab states to mediate disputes, the PIJ emerged as a seemingly unlikely Palestinian interlocutor able to bring compromise and end the division. Since then, PIJ leaders have been holding continued talks with both Fatah and Hamas and convened seminars and workshops to stress the consequences of Palestinian discord.
In early 2015, the PIJ’s secretary-general, Ramadan Shallah, along with his deputy, Ziyad al-Nakhalah, brought diverse Palestinian delegations to Egypt in order to resume dialogue and facilitate cooperation. Although ultimately a failed attempt, it was a well-designed initiative coordinated with Egyptian political officials that cemented the PIJ’s status as a Palestinian interlocutor capable of working with all interested Arab actors.
Similarly, the PIJ was also involved in negotiations during the latest Israeli war on Gaza in 2014, where the group’s participation helped forge the cease-fire that ended the conflict. This seemingly gave it better connections with Egypt than Hamas has, given that Israel – recognizing its military capabilities and popularity within Palestinian society – was willing to negotiate with the PIJ through Egypt.
Broader changes in the landscape of Middle East politics have also benefited the PIJ. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2013 had a particularly negative impact on Hamas in Gaza, but the PIJ maintained and fostered relations with President Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi and other Egyptian political groups. Although ideologically at odds with the current Egyptian regime, leaders from the PIJ have charted a third course and maintained working relations with Egyptian security officials. For instance, PIJ maintains communications with the head of the Public Intelligence Bureau in Egypt, and PIJ leaders have made several short visits to Egypt, particularly since Sisi came to power.
Unlike Hamas, the PIJ has also maintained its relations with Iran despite a growing Sunni-Shiite rift in the region. In Syria, the movement has neither helped the opposition, nor has it provided military or logistical support to the regime. It has maintained its relations with Syrian leaders, taking into consideration the number of Palestinian refugees in the country and its political ties with Iran as a main ally of Syria and a principal backer of resistance to Israel.
Internally, the group is also making a conscious decision to give leadership roles to young Palestinians, whom Fatah and Hamas still exclude from their decision-making processes. Young professional Palestinians are able to join the PIJ and rise through the ranks, providing substantial contributions to the group’s policy and strategic thinking. Accordingly, young charismatic leaders are working at all political levels to reinvigorate the PIJ and solidify its standing along Palestinians.
This internal shift also reflects the PIJ’s opportunism in the face of Palestine’s democracy deficiency. The Palestinian Authority, which lacks credibility and transparency among Palestinians, has not been able to secure good living conditions for people nor sustain the basic political and social structure in Palestine. The various Israeli sieges of Gaza and the subsequent lack of reconstruction has added to the suffering of 1.8 million Gazans for the past eight years – the failures of the Palestinian Authority, Fatah, and Hamas left an opening and created opportunities for smaller parties such as the PIJ. This is increasingly turning the group into the third largest movement in Palestine.
The PIJ is betting on its momentum to translate into electoral success. Recent opinion polls show that the PIJ could win up to 12 percent of the Palestinian vote in the next general elections. The movement’s choice to invest in education and attract young intellectuals is paying off – and was inspired by Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian general elections in 2006, largely attributed to their education, social work, and welfare provisions. This has motivated the PIJ to embark upon a similar strategy and reach out to support the neglected groups within society.
The rise of the PIJ will likely be at the expense of Fatah and Hamas. If the group maintains its approach, it has the opportunity to fill the political vacuum created by the Hamas-Fatah rift. This rise has the potential to create a balance in Palestinian politics and conceivably alleviate the enduring political tension and polarization.
Hani Albasoos is an associate professor of political science at the Islamic University in Gaza and is a member of several Palestinian and European academic and research institutions, including the House of Wisdom and the School of Oriental and Asian Studies in London. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).