Palestinian Islamic Jihad group buries ex-leader in Damascus

Damascus (AFP) – Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad buried its former leader Ramadan Shalah in Syria Sunday, an AFP correspondent said, a day after he died in neighbouring Lebanon.

The 62-year-old died in a Beirut hospital before his body was transported across the border to Syria, a Palestinian source said.

Shalah led Iran-backed Islamic Jihad from 1995 until 2018 when he was replaced by his deputy Ziad al-Nakhala.

At the time, Shalah — who the United States have listed a “terrorist” since 1995 — was believed to be in a coma after an unknown illness.

Dozens of mourners, including Nakhala, gathered around his coffin draped in the group’s banner in the Mazzeh neighbourhood of Damascus, after receiving special permission to gather despite the threat of novel coronavirus.

A funeral procession then headed to a cemetery in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the edge of the capital, where the Palestinian source said Shalah had wanted to be buried if not in his birthplace of the Gaza Strip.

An AFP photographer saw his coffin lowered into a grave.

In a statement, Islamic Jihad in Gaza bid farewell to “the great leader whose history… we recall since the founding of the Jihad movement”.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas paid tribute to Shalah on Saturday night, saying the Palestinian people had “lost a great national figure”, Palestinian news agency WAFA reported.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he was “deeply affected” by the loss of Shalah following a life spent fighting for the “holy Palestinian cause” and Jerusalem.

In a message from his office to “the brave Palestinians”, Zarif hailed Shalah as a “pragmatic, intellectual, serious and intelligent person” who sought “unity between people from difference backgrounds, between Palestinian groups and within the Muslim world”.

Shalah was born in 1958 and later travelled to Egypt and Great Britain for his higher studies.

He settled in Syria in 1995 when he became leader of the Islamic Jihad group.

In 2006, the FBI listed Shalah among its “most wanted terrorists”, offering $5 million for information leading to his apprehension.

Alongside its Gaza allies Hamas, Islamic Jihad has fought three wars with Israel since 2008.

Branded a “terrorist” organisation by the United States and the European Union, it opposes the peace agreements signed between Israel and the internationally recognised Palestinian leadership.

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