from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Social Work, Violence, and Palestinian Nationalism

May 08, 2014

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Is Islamic Jihad getting soft?  Most likely not, but last Sunday, Jodi Rudoren had an interesting piece in the New York Times about the group. For those not familiar with the details of Islamic Jihad (sometimes referred to as Palestinian Islamic Jihad), it was founded in the late 1970s by Palestinian students studying in Egypt, frustrated that, for all the rhetorical demands in the Arab world and beyond for the establishment of a Palestine state, no one was doing much about it.  As the group’s name implies, its focus was exclusively liberating Palestine—from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean—through violence.

Islamic Jihad shunned the kind of social and political work that was central to the Muslim Brotherhood’s effort to Islamize Palestinian society from below. With Iranian financial support—its leaders admired the ideological zeal of Iran’s revolution— the group began attacking Israelis.  In the 1980s and the first part of the 1990s, Islamic Jihad’s fighters used knives or tried to sneak bombs on Israeli buses.  In a twisted way, those attacks seem quaint in comparison with what would come next: suicide bombs. Since 2005 with Israel’s almost total lock-down on the Gaza Strip, Islamic Jihad’s terrorists have not been able infiltrate Israel and blow themselves up so they have turned to lobbing rockets in the direction of Israel’s population centers.

Two items in Rudoren’s article struck me as important:  First, she reports that Islamic Jihad has developed a robust social services network that includes “schools, clinics, and family mediation.”  My sense is that Rudoren may be overstating the case, though there does seem to be a debate within Islamic Jihad about the political value of providing these kinds of services.  These internal discussions would, in and of themselves, be a significant innovation in the way the organization’s leaders view the world.  A lot of the research on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the 1980s and 1990s offered insight into how the provision of social services became a valuable mechanism of political mobilization. The same kind of dynamic may be underway in Gaza.  Still, I have my doubts about the extent to which Islamic Jihad is getting into the “up with the people” efforts that other types of Islamist groups have perfected. It seems to be too much of a departure from what has been an almost singular emphasis on violent resistance.

This brings me to the second interesting piece of Rudoren’s article. In the sixth paragraph she writes:

Islamic Jihad has been able to assert itself as the main military expression of Palestinian nationalism, while Hamas is partly blamed by a restive population for rampant unemployment and daily shortfalls of fuel, electricity and water.

When I read this sentence, my immediate reaction was “Uh oh.”  In the 1980s, Islamic Jihad leaders derived significant political benefit at the Muslim Brotherhood’s expense because they established themselves and their organization as nationalists par excellence through violence. Hamas—that is, the Islamic Resistance Movement—was created out of the Brotherhood in the late 1980s to burnish the Brothers’ own nationalist street cred through attacks on Israelis.  Glenn E. Robinson’s excellent book, Building a Palestinian State: the Incomplete Revolution goes into this in some detail. This was also the same dynamic that led to the emergence of Fatah’s al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade in the early days of the second intifada.  The ultimate expressions of Palestinian nationalism have become steadfastness and resistance.  The failed decade-long effort to find peace in the 1990s badly compromised Fatah’s claim to be the mantle of Palestinian nationalism, which it sought to redeem through mostly suicide bombings.

If Hamas is feeling pressed because Islamic Jihad has eroded its claim to be the avatar of Palestinian nationalism and Fatah is reeling after the Israelis scuttled yet another effort to bring the conflict to an end, violence cannot be far behind.