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Militants Are Wild Card in Mideast Negotiations

As Palestinians and Israel meet to work out a truce, questions arise: Will the fighters honor it? What will happen to prisoners and fugitives?

February 07, 2005|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

BALATA REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank — With automatic rifles clanking as they shifted in cramped seats, a dozen Palestinian fugitives sipped tiny cups of Arabic coffee and talked about an almost unthinkable notion: what life might be like after a cease-fire.

"I'd get married," one said a bit dreamily. "I'd finish up my sociology degree," piped up another. "I'd find a normal job and take care of my family," said a third.

Across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, hundreds and perhaps thousands of young Palestinian men have spent the last four years as full-time foot soldiers for militant groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, as well as an array of smaller, lesser-known factions.

Now, as Israel and the Palestinians prepare for a landmark summit Tuesday, hoping to shore up an informal truce that has been in effect for nearly a month, much will depend on whether these men choose to hold their fire or resume their bloody attacks against Israelis.

After spending months or even years on the run, many of these young fighters talk openly of their desire to build new lives for themselves and their families in what they hope will someday be an independent Palestinian state.

But, they say, they are equally determined to redouble their attacks if they see signs that Israel is not willing to move ahead with key concessions -- a withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank and Gaza, a large-scale release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and an amnesty for fugitives like themselves.

"If things fail at this point, we'd have absolutely nothing to lose," said the leader of this guerrilla band, a trim, bearded man in his early 30s who calls himself Abu Mujahed. "Everything would get out of hand very quickly, I assure you."

Abu Mujahed is one of three Al Aqsa commanders in the restive northern West Bank town of Nablus. He heads a particularly hard-line cell of fighters who find sanctuary in a network of hide-outs set amid the twisting alleyways of the Balata refugee camp. Several Al Aqsa commanders have taken the same nom de guerre, which means "Father of the Warrior."

The real identity of this particular Abu Mujahed is known to the Israeli military, which confirmed that it has on several occasions tried to capture or kill him. His top lieutenant was shot in the head last year while fleeing from Israeli troops, but recovered; now he proudly removes his black ski mask to display the jagged scar.

Israeli troops stage occasional forays into the Balata camp, hunting for militants and weapons, but are often met with fierce resistance. Abu Mujahed's men blend in easily with camp residents, who are unfazed by the sight of gun-toting fighters making their way past ramshackle homes and hole-in-the-wall grocery stores. Small boys with toy guns fall in behind them, imitating their swagger.

The moderate new Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, elected Jan. 9, has already secured a conditional pledge from the main militant groups to refrain from attacks against Israel.

But whether they will obey his calls for continued calm is open to question, even within the ranks of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is an offshoot of Abbas' Fatah faction.

Abu Mujahed and his men, for example, swear undying loyalty to the late Yasser Arafat, in whose name they say they joined the armed struggle. They consider him a hero, a martyr, a symbol of the Palestinian cause.

But Abbas' hold on their fealty is obviously much more tenuous. Asked his opinion of the 69-year-old successor to Arafat, Abu Mujahed replied with a lengthy pause.

"Well, Abu Mazen is the elected leader," he finally said, using Abbas' nickname.

In Israeli security circles, there has been considerable debate about the appropriate stance to take toward the Palestinian fighters. As the two sides try to build mutual trust in order to resume formal political negotiations, Israel is observing a moratorium on "targeted killings" of the leaders of militant groups, and sharply limiting what had been near-daily raids in the West Bank, often carried out by elite undercover units.

But many Israeli officials, including some members of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government, believe any letup in Israel's campaign against the fighters will spell disaster.

"A cease-fire is a ticking bomb that will blow up in our faces," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom declared late last month.

The last serious attempt to strike a truce came in the summer of 2003, after the inauguration of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.

That yielded a seven-week period of relative calm, which was eventually shattered as Israel killed more Hamas figures, and the militant groups mounted a series of escalating attacks.

Part of the problem in negotiating any cease-fire is that the militants do not speak with one voice.

Although they have been generally united in the struggle against Israel, the main groups have separate and sometimes clashing interests that will begin moving to the fore.

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