Palestinian dissension confounds a `Martyr'

Mideast: Disunity in the militant wing of Arafat's Fatah political movement leaves some wavering between calls for a cease-fire and the beliefs of Islamic fundamentalists.

January 09, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AMARI REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank - His face unshaven and his clothes disheveled, Khalid Idris deftly roams the back alleys here, sleeping in a different house each night to avoid the Israeli army patrols searching for him.

The burly 36-year-old is a member of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the militant wing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah political party.

But Idris increasingly finds himself at odds with Fatah, whose leaders have repeatedly called for an end to attacks inside Israel. His sister, Wafa Idris, blew herself up a year ago in downtown Jerusalem, killing one Israeli and wounding more than 100 others.

"Everyone has his own point of view," Idris said yesterday at the refugee camp's Fatah headquarters, a crumbling three-story building that bears the scars of repeated Israeli raids over the past six months.

Idris spoke during a break in a curfew imposed by the army, carefully venturing out from a safe house and walking the sandy streets while conferring by cell phone with lookouts in case of a surprise appearance by soldiers.

He is typical of the hundreds of militants the Israeli army has killed and the thousands it has arrested in the past six months during raids into cities, villages and refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"The Israelis are killing us every day," Idris said. "What should we do? We would like peace. But it's not peace for Israel and death for Palestinians." If Israeli soldiers can target Palestinians, he argued, then Palestinians can target Israeli civilians.

His statements strike at the heart of a dispute raging within Fatah and the Palestinian Authority over the future of a conflict now well into its third year. To a large degree, the infighting represents a power struggle between the deputies of 73-year-old Arafat and a younger generation playing by its own rules.

Splinter factions of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades - which was formed under the auspices of the Fatah political movement at the onset of violence 27 months ago - are ignoring Arafat's orders for a cease-fire and are launching renegade operations.

The disunity comes at an inopportune time. Fatah's leaders are meeting in Cairo, Egypt, with other militant groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to persuade them to call a cease-fire, an effort that would appear hypocritical if Fatah can't get its own members to go along.

One breakaway faction of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades sent two Palestinian suicide bombers into southern Tel Aviv on Sunday evening. Standing on parallel streets, they detonated duffel bags filled with explosives, killing themselves and 22 people and breaking a six-week reprieve from such attacks.

That faction, consisting of about a dozen people from the northern West Bank city of Nablus, was trained and funded by the Islamic Jihad, a small but powerful fundamentalist group based in Damascus, Syria, according to Israeli intelligence reports and Palestinian officials.

Such cooperation is becoming more common as brigade members grow disenfranchised from Fatah and look for alternate sources of financial and political support. Israeli military sweeps have shattered many militant cells, which are regrouping by pooling their resources.

The faction that struck Tel Aviv calls itself Kataeb al-Awdah, or Brigades of Return. In leaflets, its members said they felt abandoned by Fatah leaders and called suicide bombers "the official spokesmen for the martyrs" and "the mouthpiece for the Arab character of Palestine, its holiness and liberty."

Fatah at first vehemently disavowed any link to the twin Tel Aviv bombings, and Palestinian police detained a Gaza-based reporter for al-Jazeera television for reporting the connection.

"That Fatah was involved was embarrassing," said Qadura Faris, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council from Ramallah and a senior Fatah leader who opposes suicide bombings. "These continued attacks are a result of an administrative failure within the Fatah movement."

But Faris defended the establishment of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which provided a way for Fatah to continue running what it calls a popular uprising while giving it political distance from Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.

"The Al Aqsa Brigades should be an armed group, but under the orders of our political leadership," Faris said. "We left the group to its own initiative, and it's out of control. I think we can still surround them and re-control them."

Fatah activists ran the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which typically consisted of stone-throwing youths facing off against Israeli soldiers. But this latest conflict involved guns, and the armed Aqsa Martyrs Brigades quickly came into being.

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