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End of the Line for a ‘Martyr’

Times Staff Writer

In the hours before his capture, Maged Masri paced the floor, smoked cigarettes and drank small cups of coffee. He was nervous. He knew his time was running out.

“I feel like I’m going to get caught,” he told the family in whose house he’d sought refuge.

“Don’t worry,” one of them responded. “The army never comes here.”

Little did they know that the Israeli army had already surrounded the neighborhood in an effort to find Masri, the last key commander of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade who remained free.

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Masri, 30, helped found the militia that, more than any other single force, transformed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade had a direct tie to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. It was loyal but not always obedient. It carried the tactic of suicide bombing out of the realm of radical Islamists to the wider, more- difficult-to-track secular mainstream. It militarized Palestinian resistance in ways never before seen in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Interviews with Masri and other militiamen over a period of 2 1/2 years revealed their group’s evolution from a disjointed band of gunmen to the dominant guerrilla force in the fight for Palestinian independence.

For the time being, Israel’s aggressive clampdown on Palestinians has gone a long way toward crushing the militancy. But it has also enraged and inspired future recruits who may yet strike back.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade was founded in the seething Balata refugee camp on the eastern flank of Nablus a few weeks after the current intifada, or Palestinian uprising, began in September 2000. Its founding members came from Arafat’s Fatah movement. Some, but not all, had once supported the Oslo peace process with Israel but had concluded that it was no longer benefiting Palestinians. Israel had stopped turning over major portions of land by 1998, Jewish settlements in the West Bank continued to expand, and prosperity for Palestinians was mostly limited to a few senior, corrupt leaders.

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The men who became members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade initially were as determined to overthrow the old Palestinian guard as they were to eject Israel. They had cut their teeth as teenagers throwing stones at Israeli soldiers in the 1980s, been hardened by time spent in Israeli prisons or in exile, and then trained as professional warriors after joining the Palestinian Authority’s security forces in the mid-1990s.

Inspired by what they regarded as Fatah’s original revolutionary zeal, they fancied themselves the new elite -- an elite not of money and political clout but a more radical force empowered by weapons.

Well before there was an Al Aqsa brigade, or even an intifada, Masri was armed and ready to fight. He first spoke to The Times in spring 2000, several months before the collapse of the Camp David peace talks gave way to a war that is now in its third year.

Wire-thin and tightly wound, he strode into a Nablus office near the Balata camp and announced his determination to defend his people against Israel and even against the Palestinian Authority if need be. With an M-16 slung across his back, a Czech-made automatic pistol at his hip and two cellular telephones, Masri dared anyone to disarm him or his men.

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Impatient, frustrated and cocky, he represented a generation of Palestinians who had become convinced that armed resistance would have to replace what they saw as sterile negotiations that were only deepening Palestinian misery.

Balata, the largest West Bank refugee camp, with an estimated 20,000 people crammed into less than one square mile, has always maintained a streak of independence. Its sons refused orders from the Palestinian Authority when those were not to their liking. They launched the first intifada, which dragged on for nearly six years before ending with the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

By 2000, Balata’s militants were well armed, thanks to a proliferation of guns -- legal and illegal -- purchased from Israeli gunrunners or smuggled into the West Bank from Jordan.

Masri and his men were quick to leap into the fray when fighting erupted again on Sept. 29, 2000, after Israel’s then-opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, marched onto a disputed holy site claimed by both Jews and Muslims. In the ensuing days, Israeli troops shot and killed scores of Palestinian demonstrators across the West Bank and Gaza.

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In Nablus, the men who would become the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade began laying siege to an Israeli outpost that was both religious shrine and military bunker. Night after night, Masri and the others staged hit-and-run attacks on Joseph’s Tomb, a well-guarded site that included a Jewish yeshiva and that many Jews believed to be the burial place of the biblical owner of the coat of many colors.

On Oct. 1, Madhat Yusef, a 19-year-old corporal with the paramilitary Israeli border police, was killed defending the tomb. He bled to death when the Palestinians refused to allow an Israeli squad into the area to rescue him.

Yusef was the second Israeli killed in a conflict that by now has claimed nearly 700 Israeli lives and about 2,000 Palestinians.

Six days later, the Balata gunmen overran the tomb as Israeli forces withdrew. It was a seminal event for the Palestinians, a “victory” over the more powerful Israelis that crystallized the formation of the militia. Masri was especially jubilant that day. He swaggered around the shrine and received congratulations as other Palestinians dismantled the concrete and brick structure and trashed Hebrew books left behind.

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Shortly afterward, they began using the name Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, in honor of the revered mosque in Jerusalem that had been the site of the intifada’s first day.

Cells were formed throughout the West Bank and Gaza. They quickly boasted the best-trained fighters but remained largely decentralized. That forced the Israeli army to carry its battle against them from village to village, refugee camp to refugee camp.

While the cells pledged nominal allegiance to Arafat and the Palestinian leadership, they made many of their own decisions and planned their own actions. Masri said on several occasions that he would obey a cease-fire order if Arafat gave one but that he was sure Arafat would do no such thing. As fighting escalated, Masri became adamant about not stopping unless Israelis quit the West Bank.

“As long as we see Israelis, we will shoot at them,” he said at one point last year.

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A former policeman, Masri also maintained close ties with Marwan Barghouti, the top Fatah leader in the West Bank and a key lieutenant to Arafat.

In keeping with the official Fatah line, the cells initially confined their attacks to the West Bank and Gaza, targeting Israeli soldiers, Jewish settlers and other symbols of occupation.

Israel’s assassination of Raed Karmi, a popular militia commander in the West Bank city of Tulkarm, last Jan. 14 changed that. Al Aqsa fighters launched a sustained series of attacks inside Israel, including the first suicide bombings by women, quickly outpacing the radical Islamic groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

“Our civilians are being killed by soldiers from Tel Aviv, so we will hit Tel Aviv,” one of Masri’s deputies, who used the nom de guerre Abu Samud, said at the time.

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Masri would later say he did not initially approve of the change of tactic. But over time, he too came to blur distinctions. For example, Israeli security sources say Masri was behind the shooting last month of a young mother and her two sons on an Israeli kibbutz.

Al Aqsa’s use of suicide bombings altered the conflict, forcing Israel to rethink the profile of the bombers. No longer was the tactic confined to radical Muslims fueled by religious fervor; no longer were bombers just young men from impoverished homes.

Potential bombers were volunteering in droves. The Palestinians had a tool that they felt gave them an edge over their enemy.

“We don’t have so many resources to fight the Israelis,” said another of Masri’s cohorts, who asked to be identified only as Nasser. “The martyrdom operations [suicide bombings] served Al Aqsa’s goals. It is the most powerful weapon, because it has created fear in the hearts of the Israelis.”

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Al Aqsa claimed responsibility for half of the nearly 40 suicide bombings this year alone.

In Nablus, most of those who were interested went first to Mahmoud Titi, the top Al Aqsa commander in Balata, who would send them to a member of the militia’s suicide squad, according to militiamen who agreed to discuss the process. The volunteer’s background would be carefully reviewed because the militia feared collaborators who might be trying to infiltrate the organization. Once screened, the volunteer would be trained in suicide bombing.

One volunteer was Dareen abu Aisheh, a 21-year-old English major from a Nablus university and one of only three known female suicide bombers in the current intifada. Her sympathies lay with Hamas and other Islamic groups. But Hamas operatives told her a suicide assault was no job for a woman.

So she turned to Al Aqsa. She was checked out, trained and given a belt of explosives and an assignment, said Nasser. Women are thought to have a better chance of reaching Israeli population centers. She was to travel to Jerusalem, change into an Israeli soldier’s uniform, penetrate a base for female soldiers and blow herself up.

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On Feb. 27 of this year, she began the journey. But when she reached a checkpoint between the West Bank and the Israeli city of Modiin, she apparently thought she was about to be caught. She detonated her bomb, killing only herself.

Her family, interviewed soon afterward in their home in a village just outside Nablus, said they had been shocked by Dareen’s action. Their stories resembled those told by the relatives of almost every other suicide bomber in the last two years: Morose over the deaths of so many young Palestinians, and convinced she had no future, relatives said, Dareen chose to become a human bomb.

“We used to get dozens” of volunteer suicide bombers, Masri said in March, two weeks after Abu Aisheh’s operation and as Israeli forces were raiding much of the West Bank. “But now we are getting hundreds.”

The first major setback for Masri came when his partner, Yasser Badourie, was killed in August 2001. Badourie had been greatly admired by his comrades; he had a sharp strategic mind, was at the top of his school class in the late 1980s until repeated arrests forced him to drop out, and possessed a special knack for making weapons.

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A bomb he was preparing exploded in his lap, and he died five days later. Masri, at his side when the blast occurred, was wounded in the leg, giving him a limp that still slows him down.

Israeli Army Retaliation

In February of this year, after retaliation for Karmi’s death claimed scores of Israeli victims, the army launched its first raids on refugee camps, thrusting deep into Balata and the Jenin camp in search of fighters from Al Aqsa, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Masri vowed to “fight to the death” -- even as he and the others slipped out of Balata and into Nablus and scattered hide-outs. Once again, they had, in their minds, triumphed.

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As the Israeli military was declaring its own success in wiping out “terrorist cells” in Balata and Jenin, Al Aqsa struck again. Palestinian gunmen killed 13 soldiers and three Jewish settlers in two operations. The assailants escaped both times. More suicide bombings followed.

Sharon, by now the prime minister, declared he had had enough, and on March 28 he launched Israel’s largest military offensive in the West Bank in more than three decades. This time, the army swept into cities as well as refugee camps. By June, most of the territory that had been under Palestinian control for the previous seven or eight years was reoccupied.

The offensive was devastating for the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Ferocious battles in Nablus’ ancient center killed about 80 Palestinians -- both fighters and civilians.

Hiding became more difficult. Israelis could hunt down their wanted men one by one or in wide sweeps that netted several suspects at a time, along with numerous innocents.

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Nasser Awais, a commander and founder of Al Aqsa, was captured and is in prison. Titi was killed May 24 when an Israeli tank fired on him and two companions seated at the edge of a cemetery. All three died, as did another man in his 50s who was sitting in his living room.

Masri dropped out of sight. With most of the Al Aqsa hierarchy dead or detained, he was next in line. It became more difficult for reporters to meet with him, and interviews were reduced to brief, furtive telephone conversations.

Word went out that he was retiring from militia duty, then that he was attempting to negotiate safe passage to a different country. His wife, Zainab, says she never believed any of it.

“He chose this path a long time ago,” she said in an interview at her parents’ home. She and Masri had met in a computer class, and she frequently implored him to give up the guerrilla life. She said that she had not seen him in six months but that they spoke on the telephone every other day. He worried about their two little girls. The couple last spoke just as Israeli troops were closing in on him Nov. 29. He was telling her to take care of herself when the phone went dead.

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It was the final Friday of Ramadan, close to dusk, when people share dates and tea to break the fast.

The army surrounded the well-to-do Refadiya neighborhood in Nablus. Swiftly the troops reached the nine-floor, 29-unit apartment building where Masri sometimes lived. They moved from apartment to apartment, searching those that were inhabited, blowing in the doors of those where no one was home.

They didn’t find him.

Masri had already moved about 300 yards down a stony hill and through a stand of olive trees to the nearby three-story home of the extended Freitekh family, some of whose members were old-time activists in the Palestinian resistance.

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As the evening wore on, the troops moved closer. It grew dark. The Freitekh family doused the lights. Rana Freitekh, 33, saw jeeps and soldiers outside her front door. Masri watched from the living room, where two chandeliers hung above polished-wood furniture and gold-trimmed throw pillows.

“Act normally,” he told his hosts. “If they ring the bell, open the door immediately.”

Masri realized that there would be no escape, Rana said. The house was surrounded.

Near-Accidental Arrest

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At first, apparently, the soldiers did not realize whom they were confronting when they reached the room where Masri and others were seated. They led him into the street, cuffed but not blindfolded. There, an army officer who knew Masri from the first intifada recognized him.

The soldiers began shouting, shoving their guns at the family and demanding information about Masri.

“Do you know this is the biggest terrorist in Palestine?” shouted one Arabic-speaking Israeli soldier.

Masri was hauled back into the living room, blindfolded and interrogated, according to Rana, who watched from the hallway. The soldiers asked about weapons, and other things she couldn’t hear. He swore on his daughters’ lives that he was not armed.

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The mood eased, she said. The soldiers were jubilant, some applauding and singing. Masri was now calm. It was over.

He was taken away around 10:30 p.m., nearly seven hours after the operation began. So were Rana’s husband, brother-in-law and cousin. Those three returned three days later. Masri remains in an Israeli prison and after extensive interrogation will probably be put on trial.

“We’re happy they caught him instead of killing him,” Rana said.

How the Israelis finally got him is a matter of much speculation. Some Palestinians are convinced that Masri was turned in by top Palestinian Authority figures angered by a Nov. 28 attack on a polling station of Israel’s governing party during primaries in the Israeli town of Beit Shean. Six people were killed. Al Aqsa claimed responsibility, and many in the Palestinian Authority were furious about such a provocative attack inside Israel.

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The truth, though, is that it would have been simply a matter of time before the army caught up with Maged Masri. Now the question is whether someone will rise up to take his place.


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