Popular Resistance Committee Backgrounder: 2018

On Feb. 17, 2018, an improvised explosive device (IED) was set off near several Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers at the Gaza Strip border, wounding four. The New York Times reported that the attack was both “praised” and perpetrated by the “Popular Resistance Committees, a militant offshoot of Fatah that has specialized in setting roadside bombs and other explosive devices (“Four Israelis Hurt By Bomb Set in Flag at Gaza Fence, Igniting Night of Fighting,” Feb. 17, 2018).” Yet, this barely suffices as a description of a group that has committed dozens of terror attacks since its creation in 2000, and seems likely to commit many more.

Former members of Fatah, the movement that dominates both the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a U.S.-designated terror group, formed the Popular Resistance Committee (PRC) in September 2000. The PRC also included operatives from Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), both U.S.-designated terrorist organizations. Members of the PA’s security forces comprised much of the PRC’s early makeup. Accordingly, the PRC could be—and often is—characterized as a “coalition” of various anti-Israel terror groups. According to Lt. Col. Jonathan Halevi, an analyst with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the name Popular Resistance Committee was chosen to express the “concept of the organization’s founders that the struggle against Israel should be waged by a military force combining all of the organizations.”

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Jamal Abu Samhadana, a former member of the Tanzim faction of Fatah, created the PRC. As CAMERA has detailed (see, for example “Backgrounder: Tanzim,” Sept. 5, 2017), the Tanzim faction is made up of a different, younger clique—one that is frequently critical of Fatah’s founding generation.

Origins and Ideology

Samhadana and others formed the PRC to promote attacks against Israel from the Gaza Strip, The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Center said in an Aug. 23, 2011 report (“The Popular Resistance Committees: Portrait of a Terrorist Organization”). Although a BBC profile of the PRC claimed that the organization was established with “the aim of defending Palestinian refugee camps during Israeli incursions,” this is incorrect (Profile: Popular Resistance Committees,” Sept. 7, 2005). Indeed, the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) explicitly stated that the PRC was created to oppose “the conciliatory approach adopted by the Palestinian Authority and Fatah towards Israel,” both of which were publicly engaged in the 1990s Oslo peace process.

The PRC promotes a radical Islamist ideology that The Meir Amit Center characterizes as “close to that of Hamas,” the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot which currently rules the Gaza Strip. PRC announcements often begin with reciting Qur’an verses and frequently include many Islamic messages, “especially regarding the obligation to wage jihad [holy war].”

The PRC has stated that the “implementation of the rule of Shari’a [Islamic law]” is an “obligation entrusted with all members of the Ummah [Muslim community] to strive for.” The PRC believes that there is a “holy war between two camps to which there is no third way: the camp of faith and tawheed on one side, and the camp of disbelief and revilement on the other (Middle East Forum Jihad Intel, Profile of Liwa al-Tawheed).”

The Meir Amit Center has pointed out that the PRC’s “insignia is similar to” and likely inspired by that of Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based, Iranian-backed, Shi’ite terror group. The insignia depicts an outstretched hand rising from the al-Aqsa mosque and holding an AK-47 assault rifle. Adjacent to the hand is a map of Israel, colored in the Islamic color of green. Above the weapon is the Arabic phrase: “And kill them [the infidels] wherever you overtake them.” The same phrase can be found on PRC headbands and flags, which are usually black, with white-colored lettering.

Organization

According to the American Foreign Policy Council’s (AFPC) World Almanac of Islamism, the PRC “is likely the third largest violent group in the Palestinian territories, after Hamas and PIJ [Palestinian Islamic Jihad].” The PRC is thought to have several hundred members, mostly in Gaza, however many of these operatives likely belong to other jihadist organizations, as well. One top PRC operative has claimed that the committee has 3,000 members—likely an overestimate (“The Rocket Men Who Start Gaza’s Wars”, The Daily Beast, Feb. 14, 2015).

The PRC’s so-called “military wing” is the Al-Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades, which have been operational since the group’s founding. This element is also known as Liwa al-Tawheed (The Tawheed Brigade). As of 2015, the current leader of the Tawheed Brigade is Abu Sayyaf, a carpenter and sometime artist who views his PRC role as a “religious duty (“The Rocket Men Who Start Gaza’s Wars”, The Daily Beast, Feb. 14, 2015).”

The Tawheed Brigade’s have a rocket and engineering unit, as well as a propaganda unit called Jihadist Information. The group also maintains a presence at universities in the Gaza Strip.

Liwa al-Tawheed, like other elements of the PRC, is deeply antisemitic. The Middle East Forum’s Jihad Intel project, which provides analysis of Islamist groups for law enforcement and military use, noted that Brigade denounces Jews as “enemies of God.” The group’s founder, Abu Samhadana, referred to Jews as “betrayers” and “murderers of the prophets who also tried to murder Prophet Mohammed.” PRC declarations have referred to Israel as “a Satanic entity that must be destroyed (The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, “The Popular Resistance Committees: Hamas’ New Partners?” May 17, 2006).”

Unsurprisingly, the PRC rejects any political dialogue with Israel, as well as any political and security agreements with the Jewish nation.

Cooperation with other terror groups

AFPC noted that the PRC has conducted joint operations with Hamas and “has also reportedly worked with Salafi jihadist groups operating in the Sinai Peninsula abutting Gaza.” Indeed, the group has become “increasingly Salafi in outlook,” a fact evidenced by Sunni jihadist forums online. Although the PRC has cooperated extensively with Hamas, tensions between the two groups have emerged, with the committee issuing a communiqué in July 2013 protesting a Hamas decision to arrest some of its members (“The World Almanac of Islamism: The Palestinian Territories,” American Foreign Policy Council).

Nonetheless, an August 2011 report by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that:

“The PRC is directly supported by the Hamas terrorist organization that controls Gaza. Hamas allows the PRC to act independently. Hamas views the PRC as a means of continuing ‘resistance’ against Israel while being able to claim that it is not involved in the PRC’s terrorist activities. According to intelligence information, Hamas is directly involved in funding and training the PRC terrorists (Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Popular Resistance Committees”).” In this sense, the PRC serves a function for Hamas that is not unlike what Tanzim, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and Black September do for Fatah; providing strategic deniability.

In 2006, Samhadana was appointed to be the inspector general of the interior ministry and police in the Gaza Strip.

Similar to PIJ, the PRC cooperates extensively with other terrorist groups. In addition to Hamas, PRC elements have worked with Hezbollah, as well as PIJ and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a Fatah Tanzim element. Samhadana expressed his admiration for Hezbollah, citing the Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon as a model and “great victory (“The Popular Resistance Committees: Hamas’ New Partners?”).” As with Hezbollah and Hamas, the PRC receives extensive Iranian support. The IDF states that the PRC often “acts a sub-contractor” for Tehran. Abu Mujahid, a PRC spokesperson, told The Daily Beast that the PRC “maintained communication with our brothers in the Islamic Resistance [Hezbollah] and the brothers in the Islamic Republic of Iran” during the last war in Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, in the summer of 2014.

‘I can confirm that support [from Hezbollah and Iran] did not cease…both military and material support,’ Abu Mujahid boasts.”

A May, 17, 2006 report by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs noted that the PRC has a “strategic alliance with Hamas and Hizballah,” and “also maintains contact with al-Qaeda (“The Popular Resistance Committees: Hamas’ New Partners?”).” Indeed, a Feb. 14, 2015 Daily Beast report referred to the PRC as “Hezbollah’s best friends on the southern border of Israel” and as “the men who start wars (“The Rocket Men Who Start Gaza’s Wars”).” PRC members have been sent to Lebanon—via Egypt—for terrorist training. Reserve IDF Col. Jonathan Halevi noted that:

“One PRC member, Sharif Ziada, arrested in Israel in October 2005, said during his interrogation that Hamas paid $15,000 for a PRC attack and also supplies weapons. Ziada also disclosed that the PRC had transferred $5,000, which originated with Hamas, to an operative in the West Bank who requested funding for an explosives belt.

“Hizballah is an additional source of funding for PRC actions. In some cases, aid was sent in monetary transfers of relatively small sums ($300) to relatives of PRC operatives.

The PRC has sided with Hamas during its disputes with Fatah. The group supported Hamas’ demands to hold elections in 2006 and aided Hamas’ election efforts (“The Popular Resistance Committees: Hamas’ New Partners?”). On Aug. 8, 2007, the PRC announced that it was forming a political party to run in Palestinian elections.

PRC’s activities are largely confined to the Gaza Strip and the Sinai. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, the PRC attempted to set up operations in the West Bank during the early years of the Second Intifada (2000-05). For example, Samhadana sent a PRC operative named Akram Salameh ‘Atia Said to the West Bank in January 2002. Said was supposed to carry out a terror attack against Israeli civilians and soldiers but was caught and arrested on Feb. 25, 2002. The IDF’s August 2005 withdrawal provided further impetus for the PRC to set up an operational infrastructure in the West Bank. In October 2005, several senior PRC operatives “who were on their way from Gaza, via Sinai, to Jenin in the northern West Bank to set up weapons-production facilities for rockets and mortars” were arrested by the IDF (“The Popular Resistance Committees: Hamas’ New Partners?”).

In 2006, a group called Jayish al Islam (Army of Islam) split off from the PRC. It remains unclear whether this group has any operational ties with the committee. In March 2006, the Army of Islam participated in the kidnapping of the British journalist Alan Johnston. The abduction created tensions between the Army and Hamas, Jayish al Islam was forced to release Johnston. According to the Meir Amit Center, the group is headed by Mumtaz Dughmush and is operational in both the Gazan and Egyptian arenas. Other Dughmush family members are active in the PRC.

A 2011 report by the Meir Amit Center noted that two other factions split off from the PRC during in 2006, but maintained closer ties with Hamas and “in effect operate under its aegis.” The 2006 split occurred after the deaths of two of its top leaders: Yussuf al-Qoqa on March 31, 2006 and Jamal Abu Samhadana on June 8, 2006. Samhadana was killed by the IDF during a raid on a PRC training camp. Following the death of Samhadana, a man named Kamal al-Nairab took over. Nairab and the head of PRC’s “military wing,” Immad Hammad, were both killed by an Israeli airstrike in August 2011 “Israeli air strike kills chief of Gaza’s PRC group,” The Los Angeles Jewish Journal, Aug. 18, 2011).

A common, albeit mistaken, belief is that the PRC is part of the military wing of Fatah. It is not. The group’s origins likely contribute to this mistaken assumption.

Terror Attacks and Tactics

The PRC is largely associated with its extensive use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), roadside bombs, mortars and overall proficiency with explosive weaponry. However, the group is also known to possess antitank rockets and light weapons, including machine guns and other small arms. According to The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the committee “has carried out hundreds of light-weapon and machinegun attacks” since its creation.

Some of the group’s early attacks included assaulting a bus carrying Airport Authority workers in the area of the Rafah Terminal in October 2000, a roadside bomb attack on a children’s bus near Kfar Darom in November 2000, and a shooting attack on Nov. 18, 2000, also at Kfar Darom. The latter incident unfolded when a PA Preventative Security forces officer and PCR operative named Baha Said, infiltrated Kfar Darom in Gaza, and murdered one IDF soldier and wounded two others.

One February 2002 PRC attack was the first to destroy Israel’s Merkavar Mark III tanks, murdering three IDF soldiers and wounding another in the process.

In addition to dozens of Israelis, the PRC has also murdered Americans. An Oct. 15, 2003 attack by four PRC operatives murdered three American security guards as they were escorting the U.S. cultural attaché. PRC members Abu al-Ful, Bashir Abu al-Luban, Muhammad al-Dasuki Kamel Hamad (Asiliyah), and Ahmad Abd al-Fatah al-Safi were arrested shortly thereafter by PA security forces—only to promptly “escape” from a Palestinian Authority-run prison. No investigation into their escape was conducted.

One particularly infamous PRC attack was the May 2, 2004 murder of an unarmed and pregnant Israeli woman, Tali Hatuel, and her four daughters, in what was a joint PIJ-PRC assault.

The PRC also participated, along with Hamas, in the June 25, 2006 kidnapping of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.

In addition to launching rockets at “settlements” in Gaza—a practice that continued, unabated, following Israel’s withdrawal from the Strip—the group has displayed a propensity for setting up roadside IEDs and attacking checkpoints and crossings. The Meir Amit Center has noted, “PRC’s modus operandi indicates a preference [for] attacking Israel through the route of the Sinai Peninsula.”

On June 1, 2009, Israeli security forces detained a PRC operative named Rahman bin Khalil Talalqa. He was attempting to establish a PRC terrorist network in Israel. Talalqa described the extensive training that he received at PRC camps, which included manufacturing chemical substances for explosives, making car bombs and explosive belts, creating and using IEDs, small arms, and map reading and GPS use.

As an Iranian proxy, the PRC is likely to be involved in any large-scale Iran-Israel conflict. The group is likely to coordinate with other Iranian beneficiaries, including Hamas, PIJ and Hezbollah. Although the PRC is far removed from its Second Intifada heyday, the group has continued to carry out attacks and displayed efficiency with explosives, as well as a fierce ideological commitment. The group’s limited numbers—many of them members of other groups—and its diminished leadership, indicate that it will likely serve a support role should a full-scale war erupt between the Jewish state and the Islamic Republic.