By Matthew Kalman, USA TODAY
March 14, 2002
TULKARM, West Bank — A leader of the largest Palestinian terrorist group spearheading suicide bombings and other attacks against Israel says he is following the orders of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. "Our group is an integral part of Fatah," says Maslama Thabet, 33, a leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Fatah, headed by Arafat, is the largest group in the Palestinian Authority, the government of the autonomous Palestinian territories. Thabet spoke from the Tulkarm refugee camp, where he was holed up with about 300 of his heavily armed followers as hundreds of Israeli soldiers swept through the town. Over the past two weeks, Israel has launched massive incursions into Palestinian towns and refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza in search of terrorists.
"The truth is, we are Fatah itself, but we don't operate under the name of Fatah," he said in a recent interview. "We are the armed wing of the organization. We receive our instructions from Fatah. Our commander is Yasser Arafat himself."
Spokesmen for Arafat give differing responses when asked about his ties to Thabet and the brigade. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, Arafat's chief spokesman, says he has never heard of Thabet. "The president has nothing to do with these things, he has nothing to say about this issue," Rudeineh says.
But Mohammed Odwan, Arafat's foreign media spokesman, confirms that the brigade is "loyal to President Arafat."
"They are working for the interests of the Palestinian people," Odwan says. "They are fighting because they think these kind of operations — and I agree — will push forward their independence and their dream of freedom."
Israeli security officials concede Arafat is not involved in directing the on-the-ground operations of militant groups, but they say his regular calls for holy war against Israel's occupation have been taken up as a directive by the extremists.
In a televised address Saturday, as Palestinian terrorists launched suicide attacks in Netanya and Jerusalem, Arafat urged Palestinians to "sacrifice themselves as martyrs in jihad (holy war) for Palestine."
"When Arafat stands in front of a crowd and calls for millions of martyrs to march on Jerusalem and holy war against Israel, he is giving a clear directive to his followers," says Reserve Col. Eran Lerman, former head of research for Israeli Military Intelligence and now the Jerusalem director of the American Jewish Committees. "Marwan Barghouti (secretary-general of Fatah in the West Bank) and the local leaders below him take that directive and transform it into actions. ... Arafat does not personally approve individual operations, but he provides the money for Barghouti's terrorism."
Barghouti, who often is on the guest list at dinners with Arafat in the Palestinian leader's compound in Ramallah, confirmed last week that one of his lieutenants who was killed in an Israeli assassination was a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
The link between the brigade and Arafat signals a turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It means the Palestinian leadership has openly allied itself with a terrorist group. Palestinian officials openly say dealing in death, not diplomacy, is the only viable way to achieve their end: an independent Palestinian state.
As the Palestinians have ramped up their attacks on Israeli targets, Israel has escalated its response. The result has been some of the worst violence the region has seen in decades. More than 200 people have died — 163 Palestinians and 59 Israelis — since the beginning of March. More than 1,500 people have been killed in the past 17 months, more than 1,000 of them Palestinians. Israel's incursions into Palestinian territory reached a new level this week: 20,000 troops were deployed, and they searched house-to-house for terrorists and weapons. It has been the biggest Israeli military operation since its invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
The emergence of a radical young branch of Arafat's Fatah faction comes as no surprise to Mahmoud Muhareb, a Palestinian professor of political science at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. "They are under siege, under blockade and almost at the edge of starvation," he says. "When you dehumanize the life of human beings, they end up feeling their life is not worthy. Five years ago, you might find one suicide bomber in an entire city. Today, it is different. There are many, because they feel there is no meaning to their lives."
Palestinian Authority officials say most members of the brigade receive salaries from Arafat's Palestinian Authority. For example, the leader of the brigade in Nablus, Nasser Awes, is a salaried officer in the Palestinian National Security Force, one of 14 armed police and security services that report to Arafat. In the past two weeks, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade has claimed responsibility for attacks including:
A suicide bombing March 2 in Jerusalem that killed 10 Israelis and injured 44.
A sniper ambush on a West Bank checkpoint on March 3 that killed 10 Israelis and wounded four.
The shooting attack on a seaside hotel late Saturday in Netanya, north of Tel Aviv, that killed two Israelis and injured dozens.
An ambush in northern Israel on Tuesday in which gunmen wearing Israeli army uniforms killed six Israelis before soldiers shot two of the attackers dead.
Israeli police say they thwarted a string of other planned attacks by the group in recent weeks.
The brigade, unknown until a year ago, has become the largest armed Palestinian group operating in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel. Unlike two other major Palestinian militant groups, the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the brigade is secular. The group grew out of the Fatah youth movement known as the Tanzim. Under the 1993 Oslo peace accords that stated only Palestinian security services may bear arms, Tanzim is an illegal militia of about 10,000 armed young men headed by Barghouti.
As the terrorist wing of Arafat's Fatah faction, the brigade has the support of the largest political and military faction in the Palestinian Authority. Hussein A-Sheikh, a Fatah political leader in the West Bank, seems insulted when asked whether the brigade is under Arafat's control. "Of course, there is control," he snaps. "What do you think? That we are just a bunch of gangs?"
The Israeli army says Fatah, fueled by the brigade's lethal activities, has surpassed Hamas in Israeli fatalities. Hamas killed 100 Israelis in 2001 and Fatah killed 45, the army says, but since the start of 2002, Fatah has killed 57 Israelis while Hamas has killed 27. The brigade also introduced a lethal twist to its attacks: female suicide bombers. Wafa Idris killed an elderly man and wounded 50 people in a suicide attack Jan. 27 in Jerusalem. A woman blew herself up at a West Bank army checkpoint on Feb. 27, injuring two soldiers.
Thabet, who commands the brigade in Tulkarm, attained notoriety a year ago when, with his friend Raed Karmi, he kidnapped and executed two Israeli restaurateurs who had stopped in Tulkarm for lunch. Karmi, founder of the brigade in Tulkarm, died in an explosion in January in a suspected Israeli assassination. Palestinian security forces arrested Thabet last year. He was released, as were dozens of other suspected terrorists.
"Our struggle is against the Israeli occupation," Thabet said. "We are prepared to fight to the last fighter against (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon and his war machine. ... Israel must pay a heavy price for the atrocities and massacres which they are perpetrating on a daily basis against the Palestinian people."
Thursday 14 March 2002
Monday 4 March 2002
Hamas: Israel to pay 'heavy price'
By Matthew Kalman, USA TODAY
03/04/2002 - Updated 10:26 PM ET
JERUSALEM — The Hamas terrorist group vowed revenge Monday for the deaths of the wife and three children of one of its leaders. They were among at least 17 Palestinians killed in Israeli military strikes in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Israeli attacks were ordered by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is stepping up pressure on the Palestinians after weekend attacks killed 22 Israelis. The 22nd victim died Monday in an Israeli hospital.
The strikes on Palestinian targets continued into the night Monday. Israeli helicopters fired missiles at Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah. The missiles hit a building a few dozen yards from Arafat's office, witnesses said. Palestinian security officials said Israeli F-16s dropped bombs on Arafat's Bethlehem headquarters. Four Palestinians were wounded in Bethlehem.
Earlier, the wife and three children of Hussein Abu Kweik, a Hamas leader in Ramallah, were killed when an Israeli tank shelled their pickup. Bushra Abu Kweik, 38, had just picked up her children — Aziza, 14, Barra, 13, and Mohammed, 10 — from school in Ramallah. Arafat Ibrahim al-Masri, 16, and Haima al-Masri, 7, who were in a nearby car, also died. Israeli military officials apologized later and said the civilians were killed by mistake.
Abu Kweik said his wife, two daughters and son were martyrs to the Palestinian cause. "Despite the catastrophe, I say to Sharon and to his filthy gang that our determination will not be weakened, and we will keep steadfast in our land," he said.
Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin vowed revenge for the incident. "It is a Zionist crime. Israel shoulders the responsibility and will pay a heavy price," Yassin said.
Palestinian officials said the Israelis were trying to assassinate Abu Kweik. Hamas has claimed responsibility for a number of recent suicide bombings against Israelis.
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer expressed "regret over the loss of civilian Palestinian lives as a result of Israeli tank fire." He said Israeli forces were aiming at a vehicle carrying armed men.
In the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, six Palestinians were killed and 20 wounded, eight of them seriously, by Israeli fire, hospital officials said.
A Palestinian physician also was killed when Israeli troops at a roadblock opened fire on the ambulance in which he was riding. Saliman Halil, the director of the Red Crescent in Jenin, was traveling to the refugee camp to treat gunshot victims. The Israeli army said the soldiers fired when the ambulance tried to run them over.
Mustafa Barghouti, head of Palestinian medical relief, called the killing "another in a long catalogue of Israeli war crimes." Israel says Palestinian ambulances have been used to carry weapons and suicide bombers and must be searched at roadblocks.
Israeli troops also exchanged fire with men in the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza. Two armed Palestinians and a civilian were killed, doctors said. And, near the West Bank town of Nablus, Israeli troops killed a Palestinian man who ran toward an army checkpoint.
In Washington, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told CNN he had invited Sharon and Arafat to hold talks at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik. Mubarak, on an official visit to the USA, said he hoped a summit could "change the atmosphere" and lead to a reduction in violence.
Contributing: Barbara Slavin in Washington