With the bulk of the Palestinian reconciliation effort being focused on Hamas and Fatah, little attention has been paid to other nationalist and Islamic factions that compose the Palestinian movement.
One of these factions is Islamic Jihad, a militant nationalist movement that has adopted Islam politically rather than religiously. Unlike Hamas — which believes in the need to preach Islam to its supporters — Islamic Jihad ignores Islam's social elements and grassroots activity to instead concentrate on its political and military dimensions. This focus means that Islamic Jihad revolves around a smaller, more trained membership because it has no need to attract large numbers of followers.
Islamic Jihad, which has been close to Hamas in recent years, is insistent that it will not support a unified Palestinian government or agree to vote in post-reconciliation presidential and parliamentary elections. It is, however, open to joining a renewed Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Inspired by the Iranian Revolution, Islamic Jihad for Palestine was established in the 1970s in Egypt by the late Fathi Shiqaqi. The movement has been responsible for some of the deadliest attacks against Israelis, especially during the Second intifada. Islamic Jihad was initially close to Fatah, especially in Lebanon. Some would even argue that it was an offshoot of the PLO’s dominant movement. Khalil Wazir (Abu Jihad), the military commander of Fatah, was said to be the major promoter of Islamic elements in Fatah. Regardless, the movement rarely acted in such a way as to embrace the PLO. When Israel went to war in the 1980s against the PLO in Lebanon, Islamic Jihad fought alongside the various PLO groups. When the war ended and PLO fighters left for Tunis, Islamic Jihad ended up in Syria, where it has been based ever since.
Fathi Shiqaqi was killed in 1995 in Malta, after which his deputy Ramadan Shallah took charge of the movement. Shiqaqi's supporters accused Israel of being behind his assassination. In an interesting side note, Shiqaqi’s brother Khalil runs a research center in Ramallah and espouses moderate secular beliefs.
It is unclear why Islamic Jihad has agreed to join the PLO while refusing to participate in the political process in Palestine. The movement, which has consistently been opposed to the Oslo Accords, stated that it will not change its position for political expediency. While its members feel that Hamas in Gaza has resisted the Israeli occupation more fervently than the moderate, Ramallah-based Hamas, they are now distancing themselves from Hamas in general, because its participation in elections signals acceptance of the Oslo process while Palestine remains occupied. Joining the PLO, however, is a different matter for Islamic Jihad. It does not require de jure approval of the Oslo Accords, even if those elected as legislators in Palestine through the Oslo process automatically become members of the Palestinian National Council.
Some analysts have taken a cynical view of why Islamic Jihad has agreed to join the PLO while continuing to oppose elections in Palestine. Although elections might expose that the group can only attract a small number of voters, its members feel that they can do better among the diaspora. Currently Islamic Jihad does not have a strong following in most Palestinian cities, with the exception of Jenin and to a lesser degree Hebron as well as Gaza. Membership in the PLO, however, is determined by a mix of elections and appointment of delegates. In some places, including in Jordan (and possibly Syria and Lebanon), delegates to the PNC are selected by consensus among Palestinian leaders rather than through elections. Consensus confers an automatic quota of delegates. Others observers believe that Islamic Jihad’s Iranian patrons prefer to keep the movement ideologically pure and untainted by the kind of politics and security coordination with Israel that any new government in Palestine must necessarily engage in.
Whatever the reason, the changes in the coming year as the PLO is renewed will leave a mark on the peace process. More and more reports are surfacing that a deal is being struck in which Hamas’ current leader, Khaled Meshaal, will be awarded the highest position in the PLO in return for his movement taking a more conciliatory position toward the two-state solution and thereby recognizing (whether directly or indirectly) Israel. Islamic Jihad will most likely stay true to its ideology, but accept being a loyal opposition within the PLO without giving legitimacy to elections that they view as part of the Oslo process.
Daoud Kuttab is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region.