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Militants Are Wild Card in Mideast Negotiations

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

With the thawing of relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Hamas hopes to gain political clout and push an Islamist agenda, whereas the secular Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade seeks jobs and patronage.

Each militant group is also coping with some degree of internal rivalry. Hamas, for example, is currently experiencing significant tension between its leadership in Gaza and officials in exile in Syria.

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And rogue cells exist within each group. In the summer of 2003, a breakaway Hamas cell from the West Bank town of Hebron, dominated by a prominent local clan, the Kawasmes, was responsible for a particularly gruesome bus bombing in Jerusalem, with many children among the casualties. The Hamas command in Gaza, which had been trying to keep a lid on attacks to stave off more assassinations of its leaders, was caught by surprise.

Israel also believes that outside organizations like the Shiite Muslim guerrilla group Hezbollah in Lebanon and other Iranian-inspired groups are trying to “subcontract” an attack inside Israel by Palestinian militants, using hard-core holdouts who do not want to be party to any truce.

As relative quiet took hold in Gaza last month, the two sides, mindful of bitter past experience, were reluctant to refer to the lull as a truce, or hudna, the Arabic term used by both sides. Instead, a new buzzword, tahdia, Arabic for calm, has gained currency.

Both sides acknowledge that any truce will have to be bolstered by an amnesty for some or even most of the fighters. But that could be greatly complicated if many of those deemed eligible, such as those not known to have directly participated in an attack that resulted in Israeli deaths, balk at any immunity deal that does not also include their leaders.

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Last week, when Israel and the Palestinians were forming a joint committee to weigh the cases of individuals who could be taken off the wanted list, an outcry erupted in Israel over the fate of Mohammed Deif, a top Hamas commander who is believed responsible for the deaths of more than 90 Israelis.

Many young Hamas activists in Gaza revere Deif, who was critically wounded in an Israeli assassination attempt but remains at large. Such acolytes would consider it a deal-breaker to have him left off the amnesty list.

“In Hamas, there is a real ethic of loyalty to commanders by their men, and loyalty in return from the commanders,” said Raji Sourani, a Gaza-based human rights activist. “So any attempt to grant amnesty to some but not to others will probably fail.”

Israeli officials, in consultation with the Bush administration, have been considering allowing some pardoned militants to join the Palestinian security forces. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who arrived in Jerusalem Sunday for talks, is reported to be open to the idea, even though it appears at odds with the U.S. and Israeli position that the militant groups must be dismantled and disarmed.

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Officials on both sides acknowledge that even though the idea of having large numbers of ex-militants in the ranks of the Palestinian security forces is hard for Israel to swallow, leaving the gunmen unemployed would increase the likelihood of them returning to their old ways.

Few have any real job skills. Some have spent most of their lives in confrontation with Israel -- first as children throwing stones in the first Palestinian intifada, from 1987 to 1993, then taking up arms in the current conflict.

Moreover, there is already something of a revolving door between the militant groups and the Palestinian security forces. Senior security officials Tawfiq Tirawi, commander of Palestinian intelligence in the West Bank, and Rashid Abu Shabak, the Preventive Security chief in Gaza, are on Israel’s wanted list. Debate is underway about whether Israel should stop pursuing them.

Some on the Israeli side believe one of the greatest pitfalls would be to expect too much too fast from Abbas as he tries to deal with the militants.

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“Anyone expecting Abu Mazen to dismantle the infrastructures of these organizations immediately is just raising impractical expectations,” said Israeli Cabinet minister Haim Ramon, who has taken part in meetings with the Palestinians in preparation for Tuesday’s summit in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik.

“Meanwhile,” he said, “I think we are on the right track -- of things on the ground being better than they were a month ago, and maybe better a month from now.”


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