Fathi Shkaki was scarcely an obvious candidate for the leadership of one of Israel's most fanatical Islamist enemies. He never formally studied theology and did not even greet his visitors with the "Salaam Aleikam" ("Peace be upon you") which might have been expected of him. He did not quote the Koran; indeed, he read E.M. Forster and boasted of his knowledge of English poetry. But the men who inspired him ended up either on an Egyptian gallows or imprisoned in the United States for involvement in the planning of bomb attacks.
Born in the Gaza slum of Shubeira in 1951 to a Palestinian family who had been deported by the Israelis from their home near Ramlah three years earlier, Shkaki was educated at the local United Nations school before studying physics and mathematics at Bir Zeit University, on the West Bank. Many Islamists of the time - like several of the men who now help to direct the insurrection in Algeria - were fascinated by science and, after graduating in 1975, Shkaki travelled to Egypt, the birthplace of so much radical theological thought in the Middle East, to study medicine at Mansoura University.
Right up to his death at the hands of unknown gunmen in Malta last week, the leader of "Islamic Jihad" would recall his days at Mansoura, the inspiration he derived from studying in a town that was the scene of a famous Arab defeat of the Crusaders, his involvement in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and his study of the works of Hassan al-Banna, the Brotherhood's assassinated leader. He met Salah Sariya, the Palestinian radical executed for trying to overthrow President Sadat of Egypt in 1976 and apparently listened to the sermons of Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, who was himself implicated in the successful murder of Sadat before travelling to the United States where he was this year convicted of sedition.
Shkaki also acknowledged the influence upon him of Said Qutb, whose book Under the Shadow of the Koran became the bible of the radical Islamic movement in the mid-1970s. It was the teaching of Qutb - who was executed by Nasser in 1966 for supposedly plotting an Islamic rising - which convinced Shkaki that the corrupt and dependent secular governments of the Arab world must be replaced by Islamic societies. Oddly, he also read Marxist literature - including, it is said, the entire works of Marx - without being touched by socialism.
With his newly acquired medical degree, Dr Shkaki travelled to Jerusalem where he started work in general practice at the Augusta Victoria Hospital, meeting with other Palestinians who believed that the old Arafat-style opposition to Israeli occupation was worthless and that only an Islamist movement could achieve any political or "military" success against the Israelis. Ironically, he once admitted to me that it was only the PLO- dominated Intifada uprising which gave life - if that was the right word - to the Islamic Jihad movement that he founded in 1981. "Before the Intifada, it was difficult to recruit for military cells," he said. "But, afterwards, many of the young wanted to do military operations. After the Oslo accords, this increased. Some of these youths insist they want to lead a suicide operation . . ."
Islamic Jihad carried out a series of suicide bombings against the Israelis, the most devastating of which - using two young Palestinians with explosives strapped to their bodies - killed 19 Israelis outside Tel Aviv last January. One of the bombers, Salah Shaker, was an acquaintance of Shkaki's.
By this time, Shkaki had spent three years in Israeli jails and been deported from the occupied territories. He was thrown across the border into Lebanon in 1988 and subsequently travelled to Iran and finally to Damascus. He refused to discuss his possible death - perhaps believing that, now he was only the nominal head of Islamic Jihad, his own life was no longer at risk. He was wrong.Reuse content