A Fighter's Life Is Worth More Than a Child's

Members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades talk about their role in the intifada.

Over five days, K. was "caught" wiping away tears three times. The first time he spoke of his eldest son, sent to study abroad to distance him from any possible involvement in "futile efforts," as he put it against the Israeli occupation such as hurling Molotov cocktails at a Merkava tank or blowing up, like one of his friends, while planting a homemade charge along a torn-up road.

The second time tears welled up he was speaking of his factory, closed-down and wedged between the pile of earth and rocks blocking the road and Tul Karm's iron northern gate, which like the southern gate is locked, turning the city into an isolated enclave, cut off from other West Bank enclaves and the rest of the world.

The third time was when K. encountered a short, gaunt man, looking humiliated and entering the the Palestinian welfare offices. He was the father of Omar Subuh, a member of the Abu Ali Brigades, named after Abu Ali Mustafa, the general-secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, killed by Israel in August 2001. About three weeks after the assassination, just after the Popular Front's military wing had adopted the name "Abu Ali Brigades," The man's son Omar was riding in a car accompanying Raed Karmi, the head of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in Tul Karm, who was traveling in a different car. A missile intended for Karmi hit Omar Subuh's car. He may have already been on Israel's wanted list, but he was too unimportant to be targeted by a missile.

Two of Omar's brothers have been arrested and a third is wanted. K. introduced himself to the father and expressed his sympathy for his loss. My oldest son, he told him, used to play with your son. He had difficulty looking at Abu Omar's gray face, which told the whole story: the bereavement, longing, anxiety for the other sons, his dire straits. K. could not hide his tears.

Afterward, after recovering from his silence, K, a former Popular Front activist, said that there is really no difference between the Abu Ali Brigades and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. "They are both military wings that don't change anything - semi-illiterate children pushed into playing at being heroes and fighters and leaders."

Many, especially K's contemporaries, who were already adults during the first intifada, share this unflattering view, but are careful to keep it to themselves.

Do the armed groups terrorize the people, forcing the criticism to remain under wraps?

One morning last month, it was difficult to see any "terror" among the people who offered members of the Brigades hospitality for a short time for the purpose of this newspaper interview. They showed no signs of fear or concern for the security risk they were taking by hosting them in their homes. About two dozen members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades live in Tul Karm, which the Israel Defense Forces control from within and without. They live in underground-like conditions, staying over in other people's homes. In some neighborhoods and the refugee camps, people willingly put themselves at risk to host them and see this as natural, as something to be taken for granted.

Lost years

Four such Brigade members, aged 21-26, who are wanted by Israeli, took part in the conversation. The oldest was 11 years old when the first intifada broke out. His strongest memory of that time is the total disruption of his school studies.

After the Palestinian Authority was formed, no attempt was ever made to compensate all those children for all the lost years of study. Instead, they were recruited, especially the Fatah supporters among them, into the various security apparatuses or thrown into the work market in Israel or put on West Bank unemployment rosters. Like the entire generation of children of the first intifada, they grew up in the shadow of the oppression of that uprising - the extended curfews, daily deaths, arrests that emptied neighborhoods of their adult males, general strikes that paralyzed the little that was left of routine life, murders of collaborators, and then - gradually - promises of a change for the better: negotiations, autonomy, independence, a job and livelihood.

Two of the four carried mobile phones that are never turned off. Fatah activists say that in the Shin Bet interrogation rooms, a considerable proportion of the incriminating evidence is collected by tapping their phones. Careless amateurism, say the members of the generation that did not have mobile phones during their time in the underground 15 years ago. But all four say they change their phone numbers or phones daily.

The initiative to establish the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades took shape in phone conversations with Fatah members in all cities. It did not come about through an order from above.

It is commonly believed that this military wing of Fatah was founded in Nablus. But the four members proudly insist that it really started in Tul Karm, although they don't remember exactly when - days or perhaps weeks after the second intifada broke out.

"When we saw the Israelis killing so many children during demonstrations," said one, they decided to start using firearms. He was clearly experienced in talking to the press, especially before television cameras. He spoke in well-rehearsed, doctrinaire phrases, in the jargon typical of Fatah spokespeople: "The original, fixed goal was to oppose the 1967 occupation. We have no interest in the areas of 1948." He added: "And we actually do have some Jewish friends," from the days when they worked in or around Netanya.

When asked to name an armed action that in their view was "the most successful," they had trouble thinking of one. In their view, the Tul Karm Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades are responsible for the killing of about 15 settlers. They did not of their own accord mention the murder of two Israeli restaurateurs in Tul Karm on January 23, 2001.

When asked, they note the reason for that murder: revenge for the assassination of the Tul Karm Fatah chief, Dr. Thabet Thabet, on December 31, 2000. Fatah activists say his assassination, by an Israeli firing squad hiding in truck, as Thabet was leaving his home to go to work as a doctor, served as the main impetus to form a military organization in Tul Karm. In other words, if IDF had intended to for the killing to undermine the organization, it in effect did exactly the opposite, they say. "At first, we barely knew how to use a gun," said one, then bragging: "Today, we are expert sharpshooters."

The process of forming Fatah's military wing was neither organized nor planned, they admit. "If it had been organized, we would have been able to do more to harm to occupation," said one, thus giving away their greatest weakness. "We didn't think about what would happen. We didn't think it through thoroughly how things would develop."

The Fatah political activists who watched the youths getting organized as a "military wing," without orders from above, indeed expected a confrontation of two or three months, but not more.

At first, said one of the four, "each area in which the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades were active had a policy of its own." Now, they maintain, their organization is based on a centralized policy and coordination. For example, in order to prevent the confusing phenomenon of privately initiated public announcements, seemingly coming from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades put out every few days that do not represent the views of the organization, it was decided there would be a single person on the West Bank responsible for making such statements.

A special announcement a month ago warned against falsely disseminating posters on the West Bank with the signature of this military wing. The lack of a central command and of a single clear address in the decision-making process in Fatah prompts individuals to come out with posters of their own, ostensibly on behalf of the movement - for example with threats against particular individuals (as in the case of former minister Nabil Amar).

It is difficult to know to what extent this overdue decision to centralize the publication of posters is indeed being implemented. About two weeks ago, posters by "Al Aqsa Martyrs's" warned the members of the Palestinian Legislative Council not to dare vote in favor of a no-confidence resolution against the new government formed by Yasser Arafat. These,too, are "forged announcements," says Fatah; apparently it's easy to abuse anonymity by sending off a fax and exploiting the intimidating name of the armed youths and their reputation as hotheads.

Our hero, our security

On January 17, 2002, Aber A-Salem Hasona of the village of Beit Imrin near Nablus, set out from Tul Karm to carry out a terror attack in Hadera. He chose a banquet hall and killed six people celebrating a bat mitzvah. "That was our response to the killing of Raed Karmi" [on January 14] said the four. "If we started killing Israelis within the 1948 borders, it was only as a response to their tanks and slaughters. No one honored our "security zone," where Palestinian civilians may not be harmed, so why do they expect us to honor the security of Israeli civilians?"

The response to the assassination of Karmi, who was "beloved by all" - because he managed to slip into settlements, kill "a settler and get out" - was particularly difficult "because it was preceded by a period of agreed-upon quiet. That is why all hell broke loose."

Now they have gone back to the original policy of attacks only "within `67." "But if there are any more assassinations of our people by Israel, we will not honor the Green Line and will go back to attacking within the 1948 borders." They will not heed Arafat's appeals not to harm civilians.

If you are motivated by revenge, they were asked, why does the killing of an armed man elicit a far stronger response than the killing of a child by a tank or a semiautomatic rifle?

They appear surprised by the question and find it difficult to formulate a suitable response.

Finally, the youngest member of the group says: "When one of us is killed, we lose a fighter. That is a far greater loss to us than the life of a child, as painful as it may be."

Six of the founders and leaders of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in Tul Karm (out of 12) have been killed so far. The ones Israel has arrested are not the big fish, they say. "Now, new members are joining." They admit, however, that they "were dealt a serious blow."

It is so serious, says A.(a senior Fatah activist, former prisoner in Israel and high-ranking official in a Palestinian Authority security apparatus) that they are looking for a way to escape their "heroism."

Because they have no way of knowing which of them is next on Israel's hit list, they adhere even more strongly to a job "that is a few sizes to large for them" - as wanted terrorists and freedom fighters in their own eyes. In A.'s view, they would be happy with a solution that would "send them abroad for a couple of years."

Says A.: "We do not like what is happening. We are not bloodthirsty. We want to be free, to be like other people. Why should Israelis be better than us? They say this and sound no different from thousands of other, unarmed Palestinians."

In A.'s view, and K. concurs, they are "nothing." Some, he says, were no more than car thieves. Others, says D., also a Fatah man and a senior-ranking officer in a security apparatus, have a dubious family history.

It is not unusual for criminals of various kinds and those with "dubious family histories" to join the nationalist movements. But how is it that they have succeeded in forcing themselves and their agenda on the entire Fatah movement, and through it, on the entire Palestinian public?

All four admit that there is "a competition with Hamas." The Hamas is "strong at attacks within `48, and we at fighting against the `67 occupation. It is more important to kill soldiers."

A. agrees that this competition with Hamas - over political control and grassroots popularity - spurred political people in Fatah to give a free reign to a very small number of people, who decided to lend the uprising a "military" character. Their number grew after the Israeli military escalation and there was internal competition in Fatah as to which political leader could boast the largest number of supporters who fulfill the people's desires and avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and civilians.

A. thinks that Fatah's central committee is to blame for not demonstrating leadership at the beginning of the uprising and not proposing a clear policy to fight the occupation.

K., who does not belong to Fatah, says that this "mess" is typical of the movement, which elevated to the status of heroes and planners the uprising youths who barely know how to shoot and certainly don't know how to plan and are not authorized to do so.

But M., the host of the four activists for the interview, says that there was no choice:

Someone had to respond to the Israeli army, and that the Israeli army escalated its attacks unrelated to what the Palestinians were doing.

M. was still a little jumpy before the meeting. He took the four youths' guns and warned them not to harm the Israeli guest. This is indicative not only of the real danger the meeting posed, but even more so of the reputation the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades have as unpredictable hotheads.

They shoot women, too

The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in Tul Karm have killed 15 people suspected of collaborating with Israel. According to their invariably exaggerated figures, they have killed 30.

On April 1, 2002, a short time before the IDF took control of the city, they discovered a group of Palestinian youths being taken by Palestinian policemen to safe houses and killed them in broad daylight - right in front of bystanders and Palestinian police who did not dare become involved.

One of those killed was Imad Al-Hamshari, 23, a father of six. His older brother, a doctor of internal medicine, despises the killers. "They are the real collaborators. Within five minutes they killed eight people with Kalashnikov rifles. They are criminals."

In his clinic, between one patient and the next, Dr. Muhammad Al-Hamshari says that a year-and-a-half ago, his brother was arrested by Jabril Rajoub's Preventive Security. He spent three months in prison and was released "because they couldn't find anything." But "there is no law here and two or three months later the General Intelligence Service (headed by Tawfiq Tirawi) arrested him." When they visited him, it was clearly evident that he had been tortured.

Sources in the Preventive Security say that the younger Al-Hamshari, a mechanic, had indeed had contacts with the Israeli Shin Bet, which tried to recruit him when he left for work in Israel. The sources maintain that Al-Hamshari told Preventive Security about this of his own volition and was arrested.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in Tul Karm have the dubious honor of being the first to murder women suspected of collaborating. They shot and killed Ahlas Yassin, 35, on August 24, 2002 and her niece Raja Ali on August 30.

The women's relatives hurried to move away from the neighborhood soon after. Neighbors and activists in women's organizations refused to help track them down. "Do you think we are crazy?" they asked. The fear of revenge from the armed activists combined with their loathing of collaborators.

The four members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades say Yassin passed on information that led to the assassination of activist Niad Daas (and the killing of three bystanders). Ali, they claim, gave out information that led to Karmi's assassination. They have no regrets and do not think that there is anything wrong in their acting as judge, jury and executioner. "The collaborators do us enormous harm and we have someone in charge of checking to see if the accusations are true and he decides who has to be executed."

About three weeks ago, one of the more hotheaded young members of the Tul Karm Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades torched a car belonging to a senior-level Fatah official. He then sprayed the cars belonging to two of the official's closest friends and neighbors with bullets.

The identity of the perpetrator is known. The case was buried after his father intervened and asked to make peace between the sides and pay for the damage.

The presumed reason for the young man's actions was to send a threat to the Fatah official, who had joined the Preventive Security under its new commander, Zuhair Mansara. Among the jobs of the Preventive Security is to find ways to control these hotheads "who have weapons instead of brains."

The question of who sent him to make the threats remained unanswered.