SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Tuesday, July 1, 2003
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Ramallah, West Bank -- The fashionable young men sitting in the cafe in Ramallah on Monday resembled young lawyers or business executives on their day off. As they talked and ordered another round of strong black coffee, their sports jackets fell open to reveal pistols, cellular phones and walkie-talkies hanging from their belts.
These are the street fighters of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the terrorist wing of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, which is blamed for the deaths of many Israelis in the past 33 months, either by shootings or suicide bombs.
After 1,000 days of their bloody uprising against Israel, these young men are at a crossroads.
On Sunday, the Fatah leadership announced a six-month cease-fire, on condition that Israel fulfill a long list of difficult demands. Later, the Martyrs Brigades endorsed the truce. The Fatah decision followed Sunday's unilateral declaration of a three-month hudna, or conditional truce, by Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
As the Palestinian ground troops in this war absorbed orders from their leaders, some reacted with defiance, while others expressed a mood of victory or a sense that Israel could be tripped up by this diplomatic maneuver.
In Gaza, Islamic Jihad leader Mohammed al-Hindi hinted that the truce was more of a tactical maneuver than a real attempt to end the violence.
"We are sure that Israel will break this hudna, and then the whole world will have to start supporting the Palestinian people," said al-Hindi.
In the village of Yamoun nestling in the nearby hills, gunmen of the Hamas terror wing Izzadine Qassam expressed disdain for the truce.
"This cease-fire will not hold because Israel is continuing its aggression against the Palestinians," said the local Hamas commander. "We should not give Israel a breathing space, and the struggle should continue. We do not see ourselves as a party to this. We are the ones who are paying the price on the ground, and we have a duty to defend our people. There can be no peace with the Jews until they withdraw from all of Palestine."
But for the rank and file of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the truce presents a real quandary.
Some of their friends have been arrested or killed by Israeli troops. If the young men support the cease-fire, they must stifle their desire for revenge.
On the other hand, the truce has the blessing of Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, and these cadres are fiercely loyal to Arafat, referring to him familiarly by his nom de guerre, Abu Ammar, or simply as "Ra'is" -- the chief. Some are full-time salaried officers in the Palestinian mukhabarat secret intelligence force commanded by Tawfiq Tirawi, one of Arafat's closest confidants. Others subsist off cash handouts from the Ra'is.
Arafat's word carries weight among these cadres.
Nasser Katami, a young Fatah politician with close ties to the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, said, "The hudna relies on the extent of Israel's commitment and the existence of a political vision. A hudna means calming the situation. We will honor the agreement for as long as Israel meets all the conditions."
He admitted, however, that "there are some marginal elements who don't accept it."
Hussein al-Sheikh, a close confidant of Arafat who is believed to be the operational commander of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, said he was still engaged in "serious consultations and contacts with all the Fatah cadres, including the wanted men who are hiding in the mountains and who are scattered throughout the West Bank."
On Monday, those consultations had not yet reached Jenin in the northern West Bank, from where Al Aqsa gunmen set out to shoot at an Israeli car passing the nearby village of Ya'bad, killing a 46-year-old Bulgarian working on a road construction project.
"We are not committed to this defeatist cease-fire," said the local leader of the brigades, dressed in military fatigues, his face hidden by a tightly wrapped red kaffiyeh headdress.
"How can there be a hudna when the entire Palestinian people are under siege and when President Arafat is under house arrest and the Israeli army is continuing with its aggression?" he asked. "The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are opposed to this agreement, and I'm not talking only abut Jenin but in many other places in the West Bank. We will continue the struggle until we achieve all our rights."
Even if the militants can be persuaded to halt their attacks, it seems unlikely that they will agree to the demand made by Israel and Washington that they give up their weapons.
A poll published Monday by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found only 9 percent of Palestinians believe the paramilitaries should hand over their weapons, and only 25 percent support the ending of the armed intifada uprising.
Rashid Abu Shabak, a Palestinian security commander in Gaza, said the Palestinian Authority had "no intention" of disarming the armed groups.
"Those who think that the 'road map' (peace) plan means disarming Palestinian factions are mistaken," he said.
That mood was echoed in Tulkarem where the local leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs said he would abide by the cease-fire but would never give up his gun.