Islamic Jihad chooses new leader, remains close to Iran: official

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Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad selected a new leader for the first time in more than 20 years Thursday, a senior official said, but is likely to remain close to Iran.

Syria-based Ziad al-Nakhala will take over as the movement's secretary general from Ramadan Shalah, who has been suffering from serious health issues for months, the official said on condition of anonymity.

Shalah, who has led Jihad since 1995, is believed to be in a coma after an unknown illness, though the group has not publicly confirmed this.

The official said Nakhala was selected without a challenger, with a second source in the party confirming the announcement.

Nakhala, who was born in Gaza in 1953, is close to both Iran and Lebanese Islamists Hezbollah.

He had been the deputy leader to Shalah since the 1990s.

Islamic Jihad is heavily backed by Iran.

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

It is considered a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union, and the US labelled Nakhala himself a "global terrorist" in 2014.

It opposes the peace agreements signed between Israel and the internationally recognised Palestinian leadership.