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Palestinian "Martyr Brigades" Are Wild Card in Ceasefire

by Ferry Biedermann

Bypassed Hamas and Islamic Jihad as main group involved in attacks
(IPS) NABLUS -- The success of the newly announced cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians hinges on militant Palestinian groups abiding by it as well as on Israel refraining from attacks.

Since the beginning of this year, the most prominent among the armed Palestinian organizations is the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

The Brigades have bypassed Hamas and Islamic Jihad as the main group involved in attacks in Israel and the occupied territories. Since the previous cease-fire broke down in January, it has inflicted more casualties than the other groups combined. Lately the Brigades have even started copying the hitherto exclusively Islamist tactics of suicide bombings, which in their secular ranks is also open to women.

"Nationalist ideas are motivation enough, we don't need religion for that," says Nasser Badawi, one of the group's senior commanders in a recent interview given from an office in Nablus.

Another powerful motive for the group is revenge, "blood for blood, a killing for a killing," says Badawi several times. And the Israelis have not been made to pay fully yet for the Palestinian deaths they caused during their recent offensive, he states ominously, playing down the chances of the cease-fire.

On the other hand, the Brigades keep an eye on the political developments and a cease-fire may be possible, "if it comes from both sides." One of the Israeli practices that has to stop is the killing of Palestinian militants in so-called targeted assassinations.

Badawi reckons he is on Israel's list of most wanted Palestinian militants and he takes his precautions. On the walls of one of his offices, Yasser Arafat's portrait is the only one of a living person, the others are all legendary martyrs for the cause: the PLO's commander Abu Jihad, the PFLP's Abu Ali Mustafa and Nasser's younger brother Yasser, one of the founders of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. He was killed in an Israeli missile strike, says Nasser. The Israelis say he was killed in a "work accident."

The Brigades were founded in Balata camp some six months after the outbreak of the intifada, "as a reaction to attacks by the settlers and the brutality of the Israeli army." Badawi denies that Fatah made a conscious choice to try and take the initiative back from Hamas and Jihad, which took the lead in attacks on Israelis after the first few months of the intifada.

The Brigades started on the grassroots level and the group is not led by the political echelon of Fatah, "there is no direct relationship at all," Badawi maintains. On the other hand, the Brigades are bound to obey the political leaders if they issue direct orders to desist, "but they haven't done so yet."

Badawi is riled by suggestions that his outfit consists of a group of freelancers who are outside the control of the political leadership and who sometimes are not in a position to gauge the real interests of the Palestinian people.

"We are still Fatah," he exclaims, the armed resistance is merely a way to advance the political goals of the movement and the Brigades keep a close eye on the developments. "When Arafat declared a cease-fire in December, we obeyed, not one week as they demanded but three weeks, and the Israelis only responded with more violence."

The current round of fighting was sparked by the Israeli assassination of militant commander Raed Karmi in Tulkarem, says Badawi. "Then we decided to hit inside Israel as well. The occupier doesn't understand anything except violence." The attacks are not only meant as revenge, though, they are intended "to shatter Israeli society that has elected Ariel Sharon as its Prime Minister."

The Palestinians know Israel's might and that it can attack anywhere at will, but now the Israelis are being made to feel "that we too can reach anywhere we want."

The tactic is working too, Badawi reckons, "they are afraid now." He is strengthened in that perception by recent concessions made by Sharon. The Prime Minister has given up on his demand for seven days of total calm before negotiations can resume. "It means nothing to us, it is an internal Israeli matter but we do see it as a victory for our tactics."

The recent Israeli offensive against the Palestinians, in which the army invaded cities, villages and refugee camps, blew up houses, arrested thousands of people and killed hundreds, was totally ineffective, maintains Badawi. "They didn't arrest anybody important." Rather than hinder the Brigades, it helped them. "Because they hurt the civilian population we received even more support than before."

He brags that the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades don't have a problem finding suicide bombers, or volunteers for "martyrdom operations" as the Palestinians call them, "they come in their thousands."

The Brigades will exact vengeance for the Israeli offensive, he says, but he remains deliberately vague if that will also be the case if the political leaders decide on a cease-fire. Even then, "the Al Aqsa Brigades will remain active," though what that entails he won't divulge.

For the moment there is no use even talking about a cease-fire, says Badawi, despite the Israeli withdrawal from Area A, where the Palestinian Authority should be in full control. "There's nothing on the ground that indicates that the fighting will end, not even (U.S. envoy Anthony) Zinni can change that." He resents the focus in security of the cease-fire drive. "We want political negotiations parallel with the security talks."

For a commander of a military movement who says he has no direct contact with the political leaders, he does toe the official line remarkably closely.

He has little faith in Zinni's mission, though, because "the Americans are clearly biased towards Israel." He blames the U.S. for having given Sharon the green light for the all out offensive against the Palestinians and doesn't think that Washington has changed its attitude. The recent U.S.-drafted UN resolution mentioning a Palestinian state, U.S. statements criticizing Israel and the mission of Zinni are all dismissed as window dressing.

"That is only propaganda, to please the Arab countries so that (Vice President Dick) Cheney can pave the way for an American strike against Iraq." Badawi has more praise for the Saudi-Arabian peace initiative, although he criticizes its apparent omission of the right of return for the Palestinian refugees.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are not just an armed gang, Badawi says proudly, the group has clear political objectives. "We are Fatah people and we accepted Oslo. The problem is that the Israelis didn't stick to their word." In that sense the Brigades are completely different from Hamas and Jihad, "there is a different political vision," says Badawi. "We are fighters but we hope to have peace."

The Brigades certainly cannot be ignored in the run up to a cease-fire and even during subsequent political negotiations. The question now is whether this Fatah-based group, now that is has taken over the leading position in the intifada, will fall in line behind the Palestinian Authority more easily than Hamas and Jihad if the political leadership does decide to suspend the uprising.

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Albion Monitor March 24, 2002 (

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