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inFOCUS Quarterly

Spring 2016

Israel - Beyond the Headlines


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Updated May 24, 2012

Militant Groups

While Hamas rules the Gaza Strip, the area is also home to other Palestinian militant groups.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad

Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) is an Islamist nationalist organization created in the 1970s by Muslim Brotherhood members who oppose the existence of Israel. PIJ's aim is to remove Israel from the Middle East through violent jihad and create "an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine, including present day Israel," according to the U.S. State Department. Unlike Hamas, PIJ does not participate in the Palestinian political process or social services; in fact, it sees Hamas, which has lately taken to calling for "cease-fires" between Gaza and Israel, as too moderate. According to a PIJ spokesperson, the jihad will continue "as long as Israel continues its siege, assassination policy against Jihad and operations in the West Bank and Gaza, and refuses to recognize the right of every refugee to return to his home."[1] PIJ is mostly funded by Iran and is also aided by Syria. It is also known to have received funding from at least one man in the United States, Sami al-Arian, a former university professor.

PIJ was founded by Fathi Shaqaqi and Abd al-Aziz Awda, and its official headquarters are in Damascus. With less than 1,000 members, PIJ is a small and secretive Palestinian resistance group. Its paramilitary wing, the al-Quds Brigades, has used Gaza over the years as a launching pad to attack Israeli soldiers and civilians with suicide bombs and rockets. The group's most recent suicide bombing, which killed three people, was in January 2007. Since then, the group has launched countless indigenously produced rockets at Israel similar to Hamas's Qassam.

PIJ is designated by the U.S. as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.


Fatah, founded by Yasser Arafat in the 1950s, was the first nationalist group to control the Palestinian dialogue. The group was created with the goal of promoting armed struggle against Israel to destroy the country and create a Palestinian state on its ashes. While Fatah as part of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) officially recognized Israel and renounced terrorism in 1993, it remains connected to the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades—a militant offshoot formed at the time of the Second Intifada in 2000. The group, comprised of an unknown number of small cells with only a few hundred activists, desires to push the Israeli presence from the West Bank and Gaza and establish a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. While the Brigades uses Islamic imagery and rhetoric, it largely emerged as a secular counterweight to Hamas's paramilitary wing, the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades.

In January 2002, the group discharged the first female suicide bomber inside Israel and was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. shortly thereafter. Its attacks against Israeli citizens led the U.S. government to abandon efforts to deal with Fatah leader Yasser Arafat. The terrorist group was led by Palestinian politician Marwan Barghouti, former leader of Fatah in the West Bank, until his arrest in 2002. Currently, the group is thought to lack a leadership structure, and according to the State Department, "Iran has exploited al-Aqsa's lack of resources and formal leadership by providing funds and guidance, mostly through Hizballah facilitators."

Following Hamas's takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, the al-Aqsa Martyrs cells in Gaza increased their rocket attacks against Israel. According to the International Crisis Group, al-Aqsa may have done so as part of its strategy to undermine Hamas, as rockets provoke Israeli retaliation.[2] Like other groups in the area, however, al-Aqsa's efforts to launch rockets diminished with the end of Operation Cast Lead and Hamas's renewed efforts to enforce its unofficial cease-fire with Israel.

Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Palestinian nationalist Marxist group, was founded by George Habash after the Six Day War in 1967. With a current strength of approximately 800 members, the PFLP is best known for pioneering large-scale Palestinian terror attacks in the 1970s such as airline hijackings. The PFLP receives financial support, training, and safe haven from Syria.

The Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, the PFLP's military arm, was formed in 2001 after its namesake, who had taken over for Habash, was assassinated by Israel. The Brigades, whose membership numbers are unknown, wishes to establish a Palestinian state on all of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital. The group opposes negotiations and sees violent resistance as the only way to achieve its goal. As the Brigades' spokesperson said in 2007, "past experiences have proven the failure of all the agreements and peaceful solutions." The Brigades has carried out suicide attacks and rocket strikes from Gaza.

PFLP is designated by the U.S. as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

Popular Resistance Committees

The Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) was founded by Jamal Abu Samhadana, a former Fatah member, in southern Gaza at the end of 2000 with the aim of defending Palestinian refugee camps. However, the group soon moved towards launching offensive attacks against Israeli military and civilian targets in the Gaza Strip, and has since become one of the most well organized Palestinian terrorist operational groups.

The PRC's ideology is similar to Hamas's. Islam is viewed as a solution for the Palestinians' problems and PRC leaders reject negotiations with Israel, viewing jihad as the only way to obtain their goal of liberating all of Palestine. This ideological symmetry with Hamas has resulted in the two operating in coordination against Israel from Gaza. According to the Israel-based Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Hamas supports the PRC with funds, arms, and operational instructions so that their forces can carry out attacks against Israel while Hamas is 'committed' to a cease-fire. (Hamas employs other groups for the same purpose.) In 2007, the PRC was believed to have several hundred operatives.

Since its founding, the PRC has carried out hundreds of attacks against Israel using weapons ranging from machine guns to antitank rockets, grenades, mortars, and its home-made Nasser rocket.


Gaza is also home to numerous Salafi-jihadist groups that challenge Hamas's rule. These groups, while not believed to have direct ties to al-Qaeda, are inspired by, and followers of, the terrorist group's ideology. Some even claim affiliation.

Salafism is a Sunni Islamic ideology that believes the faith has become corrupted over the centuries and, as such, Salafis call for Muslims to return to an authentic version of Islam through strictly following the original texts and teachings of Islam's pious ancestors, or salaf al-salih. Salafi-jihadists believe that waging jihad through acts of violence and terrorism is justified to realize their political objective of creating a transnational Islamic state, or caliphate.

For the most part, Gaza's Salafi-jihadists are former disenchanted members of the military wings of Hamas, PIJ, PRC, and Fatah. The groups largely believe Hamas hasn't done enough to Islamize the Gazan population and government with Sharia, Islamic law. Salafi-jihadists also differ from groups such as Hamas and PIJ for their global aspirations and rejection of state boundaries, and for advocating against entering cease-fires or "lulls" with Israel. Hamas, for its part, largely tries to contain these groups through violence and arrest when members, for instance, break the unofficial cease-fire with Israel more often than Hamas wants to allow.

Reliable numbers on the size of Gaza's Salafi-jihadist population are difficult to obtain, and estimates range from dozens to thousands. There are also differing reports on whether or not specific groups even still exist or have simply transformed into new groups with new names. Even so, a handful of groups stand out:

Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam), led by powerful clan leader Mumtaz Dughmush, was established by splinter groups from the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees and Hamas around the end of 2005. The group is best known for aiding Hamas in capturing Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006 and BBC reporter Alan Johnston in 2007. In 2008, clashes broke out between Jaish al-Islam and Hamas after the group asserted its independence and opposed Hamas's arrest of a member of the Dughmush clan. While somewhat inactive in Gaza since then, there is reason to believe that the group is active in Egypt. In January 2011, former Egyptian interior minister Habib Al-'Adli accused Jaish al-Islam of being behind the bombing that month at a Coptic church in Alexandria.

In May 2011, Jaish al-Islam was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S.

Fatah al-Islam (Conquest of Islam) was founded in November 2006 as an offshoot of Fatah al-Intifada, a Palestinian group backed by Syria and operating in Lebanon. Today, Fatah al-Islam operates in Gaza and Lebanon. The group is led by Shaker Abssi, a Palestinian militant thought to have links to the late leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Jund Ansar Allah (Soldiers of the Followers of God) was established in November 2008 in the Gaza Strip with the purpose of "'fight[ing] a jihad for his [Allah's] sake' until the 'banner of unity is hoisted' and the Prophet Muhammad 'is made victorious,'" according to its website. The group criticized Hamas for failing to fully impose Sharia in Gaza. The group's leader, Abdul-Latif Moussa, declared Gaza an "Islamic emirate" in 2009, prompting Hamas forces to attack and kill Moussa and over 20 others. Jund Ansar Allah essentially died with its leader, although members are said to have a military base in a former Israeli settlement in Gaza from which they carry out rocket attacks.

Jaish al-Ummah (Army of the Nation) is controlled by leader Ismail Hammed. While the movement was founded over 20 years ago, it "began operating publicly in an organized manner" in 2004, according to spokesperson Abu Abdullah al-Ghazi. The group, which launches an occasional rocket into Israel, believes "Muslims all over the world are obliged to fight the Israelis and the infidels until only Islam rules the earth." During Operation Cast Lead, Jaish al-Ummah claimed responsibility for firing mortar shells at Israeli tanks and shooting an Israeli soldier.

Tawhid wa al-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad) is one of the smaller Salafi-jihadist groups in Gaza, and yet, it is supposedly regarded by Hamas as one of Gaza's most dangerous. Its leader, Abu al-Walid al-Maqdisi, is said to despise Hamas more than the other radical Islamists in the Strip. In March 2011, Hamas arrested al-Maqdisi, which prompted members of the group to abduct and kill Italian human rights activist Vittorio Arrigoni in April. Tawhid wa al-Jihad is the only Salafi-jihadist group in the region thought to have killed an Israeli soldier.

[1] "Ruling Palestine I: Gaza Under Hamas," International Crisis Group, Middle East Report 73 (2008): 24.
[2] "Ruling Palestine I," 23.

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