Is the West Bank witnessing a resurgence of Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades?

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A Palestinian protester holding his national flag stands amid smoke after tear gas was fired by Israeli security forces during clashes in the West Bank village of Bilin, on July 28, 2014, following a demonstration in support of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip. (Photo: AFP-Abbas Momani)

By: Ola al-Tamimi

Published Monday, July 28, 2014

While Fatah may have made an about-face with its attitudes regarding the war on Gaza, it will not be able to easily reactivate its armed wing, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, owing to its long political journey that has broken the back of its military leaders.

Hebron – “Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of the Fatah Movement, claims responsibility for firing at the occupation forces stationed at the Qalandia checkpoint in Ramallah…and confirms there were casualties among them on Saturday June 26, 2014.”

This was not a random statement or just another military statement coming from the Resistance in Gaza during the war. No, this was from the West Bank.

Those who do not know what it means for Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades to claim responsibility for armed clashes in a West Bank city are invited to pay attention to the fact that Operation Defensive Shield in 2012, coupled with the subsequent policy of security collaboration between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, were the most important factors in putting down the Resistance there, especially since most martyrdom operations in the occupied territories that once haunted Israel had originated from the West Bank.

Since then, Fatah sought to distance itself from armed struggle, on the grounds that the liberation phase of the cause had ended. Fatah focused instead on “state-building,” and accordingly, amnesty with Israeli consent was given to activists from al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, including those involved in killing Israeli soldiers. These activists were reintegrated into educational and rehabilitation programs, and then into jobs in Palestinian Authority institutions, and were given salaries and promotions.

Nevertheless, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and similar organizations continued to be designated as “terrorist groups.” The logo of Fatah’s military wing, details about its members and operations and so on, continue to be found on the websites of several international “counter-insurgency” organizations.

As clashes recently erupted in many parts of the West Bank, the question that has emerged is this: Will al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades make a comeback – recall that Fatah established the organization at the beginning of the second intifada – to lead events again and the Palestinian street toward a third intifada? For one thing, stone throwing has lost its practical effectiveness compared to armed struggle since the first intifada, even though it remains a symbol that haunts the occupation.

Before attempting to answer this question, it should be pointed out that al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades’ vision is to end Israeli occupation in the territories occupied in 1967 to establish a Palestinian state, that is, its vision is consistent with that of the political wing of the Fatah movement. However, this did not prevent al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades from carrying out commando operations during the second intifada outside the West Bank, hitting targets as far as Tel Aviv.

Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades’ cells expanded into Gaza, but its growth in the Strip was stunted with the assassination of its founder there, Jihad Amarin, after which al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades scattered into small combat groups. Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades’ role in Gaza gradually disappeared as Mahmoud Abbas’ faction took over the Palestinian Authority, and today, its presence there is limited to groups supported by Hamas (Ayman Jaoudeh’s groups), by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (al-Mujahidin and Abu Sharia), and by Hezbollah (Imad Mughniyeh).

The dismantling of the Brigades

As part of the social engineering process in the West Bank following the end of the second intifada, and as part of the Palestinian state-building process on the basis of peace, democracy, and coexistence with the occupation, the Palestinian Authority and Israel agreed in October 2008 to grant amnesty to al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades activists who agreed to lay down their arms and sign documents pledging not to participate in any operations against Israel.

The total number of individuals who received amnesty was 329, out of a long list prepared by the Israelis of all fugitives in the West Bank from all factions. The list was handed over to the Palestinian Authority, who formed the so-called Fugitives Committee to hold dialogue with them before granting them amnesty in return for their arms and other conditions.

Under the agreement, the Israeli authorities stopped trying to apprehend the fugitives, provided the latter were kept in the custody of the security services for three months. At the end of the three-month period, the Israeli authorities were notified of which individuals received full or partial pardons, and who was taken off – or kept on – the list of fugitives, including al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades activists who had completely renounce resistance.

Some of those included in the deal were allowed to move only in Area A (the areas under Palestinian control), while others who were refused amnesty in the past were placed under probation pending a final decision in their cases. Individuals who received partial amnesty were allowed to leave at 7 am, but had to go back to sleep the night at Palestinian Authority detention centers. Yet all this humiliation did not stop the Israelis from assassinating or detaining individuals who had been granted amnesty.

The detailed background above is meant to clarify how an armed resistance organization that had external support was dismantled, while another organization seized its weapons in return for amnesty and a normal life if the activists pledged to renounce “violence.”

Subsequently, armed individuals in Palestinian cities, villages and some refugee camps began to disappear, and after 2008 any armed individual who refused to lay down his or her arms was dealt with harshly.

There were some who were able to keep their weapons and dodge the trap of conditional amnesty and the efforts to dismantle the Resistance in the West Bank. These rejectionists, including former detainees, had to acquire weapons at double the price in order to have a safety net in light of the profound transformations affecting the Palestinian political landscape. This faction remained on the ground, stationing itself in camps like Jenin, Balata, Qalandia, and other areas designated by the Palestinian Authority and Israel as hotspots.

An imminent comeback?

The current situation is marked by Fatah’s retreat from armed struggle, in parallel with the detention or even assassination of the former leaders of armed resistance. In addition, the current Palestinian leadership in the West Bank favors so-called peaceful resistance, such as protests (a majority of which are prohibited from going to areas of direct contact with the occupation).

On the other hand, recent shooting incidents indicate that a green light was given to some armed individuals who must coordinate with one another and with some in the leadership – because no one can move this quickly to carry out armed attacks except with protection from the eyes of the security services.

Apart from the theory that Mohammed Dahlan, expelled Fatah leader, is trying to ignite the West Bank based on the fact that he has a long track record in security coordination, it is possible to interpret the incidents in another way: While it is very unlikely that Fatah cadres or all of Fatah could be drawn into a full confrontation, it seems that some armed cells have taken it upon themselves to initiate some individual efforts. However, it is important to note that these efforts are difficult to transform into a systematic phenomenon as a result of complicated circumstances on the ground and the lack of funding – an important issue especially with the extremely high prices of weapons in the West Bank.

Since the Israeli attacks on Gaza over 20 days ago, clashes in the West Bank and the occupied territories are growing in frequency and number. There have been more than 36 spots where clashes occurred with the occupation forces, with a corresponding number of press reports about al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades’ involvement in a number of attacks on Israeli targets.

So does this mean that the armed organization has returned? Will sleeper cells be activated to confront Israeli forces, especially in light of reports that Hezbollah is directly funding the Brigades in the West Bank? It is also possible to raise other questions about purported decisions by some Palestinian Authority leaders to take advantage of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades’ return to win the sympathy of the masses, who are disillusioned with the political failure of their leadership.

In this context, it should be noted that security collaboration is still the biggest threat to armed struggle in the West Bank, specifically in the refugee camps, which the Palestinian Authority could not re-engineer and demilitarize. The Palestinian Authority continues its attempts to nip any seeds of Resistance in the bud, even when those seeds are affiliated to Fatah. At any rate, it is very possible that we will see solitary cells engaged in guerilla warfare and attacks using small arms, and those who know the West Bank will know that such cells could indeed hurt the enemy and haunt the settlers and soldiers deployed on the streets and along the checkpoints.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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