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Idea of Truce Drives Wedge Between Militants

Times Staff Writer

During nearly 4 1/2 years of conflict with Israel, Abu Qusai, a veteran leader of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, always felt elated when he heard about a suicide attack against Israelis. Often enough, his own organization was behind it.

But when he learned of a suicide bombing on Feb. 25 at a Tel Aviv nightclub, he experienced an unaccustomed response: consternation. Even more dismaying for him, the exiled leadership of Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed five Israelis and wounded dozens more.

“This was wrong indeed -- a great mistake,” said Abu Qusai, who for many years viewed suicide attacks as a legitimate means of struggle against the Israeli military occupation. Now, however, he and other leaders of Hamas, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and Islamic Jihad in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have concluded with near unanimity that this is a time for tahdia, or calm, as advocated by the Palestinian Authority’s pragmatic new leader, Mahmoud Abbas.

That broad consensus among Palestinian militant leaders gives Abbas an advantage as he heads into talks with representatives of the armed factions in Cairo beginning today. Abbas says he hopes to come away from the three-day meeting with a formal cease-fire pledge in hand.

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But the militant groups are badly splintered. However truce-minded their leaders might be, some disaffected young foot soldiers are poised to break away and violate any accord. A growing split has emerged in recent weeks between the groups’ leadership based inside the Palestinian territories and their “outside” leaders: militants in exile, based mainly in Syria.

For most of the intifada, or uprising, the militant groups have been united in the fight against Israel. Now the growing fragmentation raises questions as to whether the groups’ leaders, let alone Abbas’ government, are in a position to stave off violence that could destroy efforts to restart peace talks and set terms for Palestinian statehood.

Also threatening any prolonged period of calm is Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite Muslim movement backed by Syria and Iran. Israeli intelligence says Hezbollah, capitalizing on internal disarray within the militant movement, is trying to recruit Palestinians to carry out attacks, targeting young militants with only a loose affiliation to one of the major groups.

Until the Tel Aviv bombing, about six weeks had passed without a major attack by one of the Palestinian militant groups. Although no formal cease-fire had been declared, leaders of all three organizations said the hiatus was the result of an informal accord reached with Abbas.

In response to that lull, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made concessions long demanded by groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Israel stopped its “targeted killings” of militant leaders, scaled back army activity in Gaza and the West Bank, announced it would stop demolishing the family homes of suicide bombers and other attackers, and freed 400 Palestinian prisoners, most of them militants.

The Tel Aviv attack prompted a reassessment by the Israeli security establishment, which held Syria responsible because that country harbors exiled leaders of all three main groups. An Israeli troop pullback from West Bank cities was put on hold, a large-scale prisoner release was likely to be postponed, and Israel announced that the leaders of Islamic Jihad were no longer immune from assassination.

Around the northern West Bank town of Tulkarm, where the Islamic Jihad cell that dispatched the Tel Aviv bomber had been operating, Israeli troops staged days of raids and made more than a dozen arrests, killing an Islamic Jihad operative last week.

Abbas’ government also was pressed by Israel to begin rounding up hundreds of wanted men, rather than only those considered to be “ticking bombs” -- those thought to be planning an imminent attack. The prospect of arrest by Palestinian security appeared to cause the militants little concern, however.

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On a recent morning in Nablus, the largest Palestinian city, a group of militants from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade pored over a “wanted” list that had just been provided to them by a contact within the Palestinian security forces. “Oh, there I am,” one said laconically.

To the extent that the militant groups support standing down from attacks, they are acting out of self-interest rather than any change in ideology, Israeli officials and analysts say.

The groups’ leaders in Gaza and the West Bank “for strictly tactical reasons are less radical than those on the outside,” said David Hachem, a colonel in the army reserves and an advisor to the Defense Ministry. “Because they are the ones who live daily with Israel’s ability to react.”

Most of the senior Hamas leadership in Gaza was wiped out by Israeli assassinations, and the group has concentrated recently on enhancing its political clout within the Palestinian Authority. The Al Aqsa, loosely linked to Abbas’ Fatah movement, is positioning itself to reclaim a prominent role in the ranks of the Palestinian security establishment.

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Islamic Jihad, the smallest of the three main Palestinian militant groups, might have the weakest motivation for abiding by any truce. Unlike Hamas, which says it will run candidates in July parliamentary elections, Islamic Jihad says it will not participate. And Israeli intelligence believes Islamic Jihad’s internal disputes are more serious than those within Hamas or the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

Although nearly all Palestinians are Sunni Muslims, Islamic Jihad has a Shiite faction, with supporters mainly outside the Palestinian territories, that vehemently opposes any accommodation with Israel or with Abbas. Islamic Jihad leaders in the West Bank have reported receiving threats for disavowing any connection to the Tel Aviv attack, and nervousness has spread among the group’s senior commanders, some of whom now fear their brethren as much as they do the Israelis.

Abu Qusai, a Nablus-based leader of the group who has vocally criticized the bombing, spoke only on condition that this family nickname rather than his real name or his nom de guerre within the group be used.

One pitfall of any truce struck by Abbas is that loyalties among the militants are more likely to be dictated by clan ties than affiliation to a group. Many of those arrested in recent Israeli sweeps in the northern West Bank are related to one another.

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Moreover, family connections often cut across organizations. Zakariya Zubeidi, the leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in the West Bank town of Jenin, has a brother named Jibril, who is an Islamic Jihad operative. Jibril Zubeidi is under arrest, and Israeli security officials said that under interrogation, he disclosed plans to fire rockets at the Israeli town of Afula and carry out a shooting attack at a school in Jerusalem.

Accountability on the part of young militants toward any one organization’s authority has eroded in some lawless locales, such as the northern West Bank, where the planning of attacks against Israel has become intertwined with organized crime.

“In places like Jenin or Nablus, what we are talking about are criminal gangs who govern the streets and the casbah,” said Mordechai Kedar, a former Israeli military intelligence officer. “Whatever branch of the resistance movement they might declare their allegiance to, it’s an artificial distinction.”

Of the militant groups, Hamas tends to have the greatest degree of internal discipline, while mid- to low-level operatives of Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa are more susceptible to outside pressures, several current and past members of all three groups say.

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Israeli authorities say that even though they believe the Hamas leadership is committed for now to a halt to attacks, it has been far from idle during the lull. A Hamas weapons lab uncovered north of Jenin last month contained a ready-to-launch Kassam rocket, the first time the group was known to possess one outside Gaza. Hamas is also thought to be amassing an extensive new arsenal with funds funneled from abroad.

Little noticed after the Tel Aviv bombing was an outburst of Palestinian public criticism of the attack -- opinions that would never have been openly voiced when the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was alive.

A commentator for the Al Ayam newspaper, Hassan Batal, visited the bomber’s family home outside Tulkarm and noted a sharp departure from past norms of ritual community celebration. Instead of the attacker’s relatives expressing pride in his sacrifice, a cousin bitterly told Batal that the bombing had done nothing to help the Palestinian cause.

That echoes polls, which have shown a steep decline in support for suicide bombings among Palestinians.

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Yet Abbas remains in a perilous position, squeezed by Israel as well as the militant factions. Hamas and others have staged large and angry street demonstrations threatening a return to suicide attacks unless Abbas speedily wins concessions from Israel, such as a major new prisoner release and a pullback from West Bank towns.

“Abu Mazen can’t get into a face-to-face confrontation with these groups because he will immediately be tarred as a collaborator with Israel, but if he can’t establish order, Israel won’t talk to him about the real issues,” said Kedar, the former intelligence officer, using Abbas’ nickname.

“He’s trying to run between the raindrops and somehow stay dry, but there is a limit to how long that can last.”


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