What is Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Lebanon? Fighters shed light on role in Gaza war

From exclusive interviews with two militants, The National gained an insight into the workings, leadership and goals of the clandestine organisation

The National interviews Palestinian Islamic Jihad members in Lebanon

The National interviews Palestinian Islamic Jihad members in Lebanon
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The safe house chosen by the former Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) commander and his colleague, a fighter currently active in the group's armed wing, the Quds Brigades, was a small, dimly lit and surprisingly well-decorated room in the southern Lebanese city of Saida.

Both Abu Sari, the former commander, and Abu Sajed, a special forces fighter and the room's interior decorator, agreed to the interviews on the condition of anonymity. They staggered their arrivals to avoid detection and came with their heads and faces covered.

“People of my rank can be counted on one hand,” said the former commander, Abu Sari, as his bodyguards waited outside.

Abu Sari still maintains close affiliation with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, reactivating in times of need and operating for them on a retainer basis. “We’re each considered a cadre, responsible for our own fighters and trainees.”

He is Lebanese and claims to be among the first 17 members to have joined PIJ in Lebanon in the 1980s.

“I have a deputy who directly trains the men and gives them the necessary guidance,” he added. “But they're not tied to each other, not like a string of beads where if one person dies the whole thing becomes undone. There's no interdependence.”

The speech of the militants clashed with their surroundings: a mise-en-scène of terracotta wallpaper and vintage novelties. Although the two militants declined to discuss the safe house’s use, it was clear great care had been taken to make it feel like a home-from-home.

We don’t wait for orders to fight
Abu Sajed, a militant in the PIJ

According to the commander, each cadre commands around 100 fighters divided into factions of approximately 30 fighters per group. The factions are then split into cells consisting of three-10 fighters per guerrilla unit.

Fighter Abu Sajed, who is the leader of one such unit within the Quds Brigades, provided some insight into the organisation's covert command structure.

“Each person is trusted to have combat intuition, so we don’t wait for orders to fight” once they’ve been deployed, Abu Sajed said. “We hit our targets, accomplish our objective, then withdraw.”

“In guerrilla warfare, every fighter has agency to make their own decisions on the field,” he added.

From exclusive interviews with the militants, The National gained insight into the workings and leadership of the PIJ movement.

For example, PIJ in Gaza send their commanders to Lebanon under the Iran-backed Hezbollah group before returning to train their respective factions.

The National also learnt that while PIJ is an exclusively Palestinian group in Gaza and the West Bank, its branch in Lebanon consists of a mix of Lebanese and Palestinians.

What is the Palestinian Islamic Jihad?

The Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine, founded in Gaza in 1981, began as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and was heavily influenced by the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The group didn’t begin armed operations until 1984 – while a 16-year-old Abu Sari was serving a three-year sentence in Israeli detention.

He had been detained while resisting Israel's 1982 invasion and occupation of Lebanon. First, he was held in Lebanon’s infamous Ansar detention centre before being moved to the Atlit POW centre in Israel in 1985.

His time in Israeli detention, combined with Israel's occupation of south Lebanon, convinced him of PIJ's ideology – central to which it claims is ending Israel’s occupation of Palestine through armed struggle.

When Abu Sari returned to Lebanon, he and 16 other disaffected Sunni Muslim youth from Saida city – Lebanese, as well as Palestinians from the camps of southern Lebanon – trained with the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite group, Hezbollah, then in its infancy.

“We went to the south. We trained with them, ate with them, and patrolled with them,” said Abu Sari, now in his late 50s.

To this day, according to the militants, commanders in the Al Quds Brigades come to Lebanon from Gaza to train under Hezbollah before returning to Gaza to then train their fighters.

By 1988, PIJ's leadership in Gaza was exiled to Lebanon, bringing them even closer to Iran and Hezbollah's periphery.

While its seat of power is split between Syria and Lebanon, where the group’s present leader Ziad Nakhaleh was exiled in the 1980s, the organisation's activities are primarily confined to the occupied Palestinian territories. PIJ's leadership calls the shots from Lebanon, but its activity within the country is beholden to Hezbollah's dominance.

While in the Palestinian territories the group consists entirely of Palestinians, in Lebanon, “many of its commanders and fighters are Lebanese,” the special forces fighter, Abu Sajed, told The National.

The group maintains a guerrilla fighting force mostly known for its anti-Israel activities in the West Bank and Gaza, where it has won a reputation for being the apolitical, less powerful, and more radical ally of Hamas – committing to armed resistance over governance.

PIJ in Lebanon recruits from Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps and maintains a significant presence there, according to Erling Lorentzen Sogge, a researcher at the University of Oslo who has studied the group’s presence in Lebanon.

“They have a lot of social initiatives and are very interested in recruiting youth into sports, scouts clubs, and things of that nature,” Mr Sogge said.

Our presence in Lebanon is different from what it is in Gaza. Here, we’re a Palestinian organisation in Lebanon. We have to coordinate with the Lebanese leadership: In southern Lebanon, Hezbollah is ninety percent the party controlling the region.
Abu Sajed

Although it considers itself engaged in an armed struggle against Israel, PIJ has been designated as a terrorist group by the US, Canada, and many western countries.

Israel, which also regards the militant group as a terrorist organisation, considers PIJ among the most extreme of the Palestinian factions. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the group was responsible for bus bomb operations that resulted in the killing of dozens of people.

But despite having jihad in their name, PIJ has not engaged with Islamic proselytisation “to the same extent Hamas has done as it believes Islamisation should come after liberation”, according to Erik Skare, a historian at the University of Oslo and an expert on the organisation.

“Its action is based on what is a viable strategy, and religion is only interpreted subsequently to legitimise that practice.”

Israel's invasion of Gaza 'cost us blood'

The organisation is also known to be much more directly reliant on Iran than Hamas, “which on the other hand is more sovereign. Palestinian Islamic Jihad operates under the scope of Hezbollah and the Iranian (Islamic) Revolutionary Guard,” Abu Sari admitted, to his chagrin.

The commander cited financial reasons for PIJ’s reliance on Iran and Hezbollah, but said the group diverges from Iran on some internal ideological points. Among them is Hezbollah and Iran’s involvement in regional conflict in Yemen and Syria, which PIJ chose to remain neutral over and which Abu Sari said was perceived as a deflection from the Palestinian cause.

The difference for Abu Sari was enough for him to retire his full-time membership from PIJ but remain on retainer for times when his command was needed.

For Abu Sari specifically, another point is Hezbollah’s – and by default, Iran’s – hesitance to engage in a full-scale conflict with Israel following the events of October 7.

You're telling me those who once threatened 'we'll attack beyond Haifa' can’t [do more to] lift the siege?
Abu Sari, a high-level commander in the PIJ

In his view, Hezbollah has preferred to maintain political gains over war with Israel.

Abu Sajed said that despite retaining some independence from Hezbollah, PIJ and other Palestinian factions have little recourse but to co-ordinate with the Lebanese Shiite group “or we'd crash into each other”.

“Our presence in Lebanon is different from what it is in Gaza,” he told The National. “Here, we’re a Palestinian organisation in Lebanon. We have to co-ordinate with the Lebanese leadership: In southern Lebanon, Hezbollah is ninety per cent the party controlling the region.”

But “generally speaking, we’re all the resistance,” he added.

This is especially true in times of major war, former commander Abu Sari said in agreement.

In Lebanon “during wartime the differences between us become nominal,” he said, referring to the loose, Hezbollah-led coalition of resistance groups that co-ordinate with each other. “After the war in Gaza, the operations room will dissolve and we'll all return to our respective groups.”

But since October 7, when Hamas launched an unprecedented attack into southern Israel that killed around 1,200 Israelis, Israel’s retaliation in Gaza “has cost us in blood,” Abu Sari said.

Meanwhile, “Hezbollah is still playing by the rules of engagement,” he added bitterly.

More than 18,600 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Israel began its war to eradicate Hamas, which controls the besieged strip.

In support of Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah and allied militants – including Palestinian groups like Hamas and PIJ – have waged a gradually escalating border conflict with Israel from southern Lebanon. But the Lebanese Shiite group, which controls the southern front, has been careful not to tip the scale into a full-fledged war.

On October 9, the PIJ became the first Palestinian group to open the south Lebanon front against Israel, when one of its units infiltrated the Israeli border to launch an attack. Two Israeli soldiers and an officer were killed in the operation. PIJ has since been involved in a number of border skirmishes.

Abu Sari implied their operations were limited in scope due to Hezbollah's control of south Lebanon.

He voiced disapproval, telling The National Hezbollah’s preservation of a controlled midscale border conflict has not been enough.

“You're telling me those who once threatened: 'We'll attack beyond Haifa' can’t [do more to] lift the siege?” he asked, referring to the Gaza strip.

His words echo the internal but unspoken displeasure of much of the Palestinian leadership in Lebanon, who hoped Israel’s brutal retaliation on the Gaza Strip would draw a stronger reaction from their allies.

Abu Sari answered: “I'll let history be the judge.”

Updated: December 16, 2023, 4:48 AM