March 23, 2002
JERUSALEM – After seizing Palestinian offices and scouring thousands of
papers, Israel says documents show Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat authorized
payment to a militant who allegedly had been involved in killing several Israelis.
Israel’s Public Security Ministry says the documents are important because they
indicate that instead of arresting militants, Arafat provided support to fighters in
his Fatah movement, which includes a militia responsible for many deadly
attacks – including a suicide bombing in Jerusalem on Thursday.
The Palestinians said the money was for political and social activities only.
Arafat has denounced violence against Israeli civilians, and the Palestinian
security forces have detained some militants, though they have been reluctant
to act against those linked to Fatah. Israel says Arafat must prevent attacks and
make more arrests, and the issue is pivotal to negotiations to end 18 months of
Israeli authorities have been poring over some 100,000 documents seized from
Orient House and a neighboring building since they shut down the semiofficial
Palestinian office in east Jerusalem last August.
Other than the letter authorizing payment to a wanted militant, no other such
documents have been found, the Public Security Ministry acknowledges.
Some documents show Arafat in contact with Palestinian political and security
officials whom Israel suspects of organizing attacks. However, none shows a
direct link between the Palestinian leadership and specific acts of violence.
A document recently uncovered by the ministry and given to The Associated
Press shows Arafat’s signature on a July 9 letter approving a $ 300 payment to
Atef Abayat, a leader of the Al Aqsa Brigades militia in the West Bank town of
The Al Aqsa Brigades most recently claimed responsibility for Thursday’s
suicide bombing in Jerusalem that left two dead and threatened to undermine
The letter, sent to Arafat by Kamil Hmeid, the Fatah leader in Bethlehem, lists
Abayat as one of 24 people to be paid. All are Fatah political activists in
Bethlehem, and as such, periodically receive stipends from the Fatah leadership.
“The documents discovered so far show Arafat transferred funds to Fatah and
the Tanzim including its fighters,” said Michael Widlanski, adviser to Public
Security Minister Uzi Landau. Tanzim is a Fatah-affiliated militia.
But Hmeid, while confirming the document is authentic, disputed that interpretation.
“The money we receive is used for political and social activities only,”
Hmeid said. Israeli claims that money supports militia activities are propaganda,
Boaz Ganor, head of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in
Israel, believes Arafat bears responsibility for Palestinian violence, but doesn’t
think that any paper trail exists.
“Arafat is too clever to use written documents that would link him to
attacks,” said Ganor. “He knows how to incite people, how to create the
atmosphere, but in a way that doesn’t directly point to him.”
At the time the letter was written, Israel was demanding Abayat’s arrest,
saying he had already taken part in three lethal shooting attacks against Israelis
in the West Bank.
They included a November 2000 gunbattle in which two Israeli soldiers
were killed, and shootings on roads near Bethlehem in February and April of
2001 that killed Israeli motorists Tzahi Sasson and Danny Deri.
Two months after Arafat signed off on the payment, Abayat struck again, killing
an Israeli woman near Bethlehem, Israel alleges. Israel said it demanded
Abayat’s arrest several times, and that on Oct. 2, Arafat told Israeli Foreign
Minister Shimon Peres that Abayat had been detained.
However, a day later Abayat was interviewed by an Israeli journalist, saying he
was a free man and would continue to carry out attacks.
On Oct. 18, a bomb exploded in Abayat’s jeep in Bethlehem, killing him
and two other militants. Israel, which has killed dozens of Palestinians
suspected of involvement in attacks, was believed responsible, but has refused
Arafat’s relationship to Palestinian militants has been intentionally shrouded in
mystery since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.
He has denounced Palestinian attacks, most forcefully in a televised speech last
“I call for the total halt of all operations, particularly suicide attacks, that
we have always denounced, and we shall hold accountable all those who
facilitate and plan them,” Arafat declared.
However, Israel said such statements haven’t been followed up by strong
action, and claims that Arafat also offers thinly veiled encouragement to militants.
Several Palestinian factions regularly carry out shootings and bombings,
including the Al Aqsa Brigades, a militia that emerged after the uprising began
and which is linked to Arafat’s Fatah movement.
Members of the Al Aqsa Brigades swear loyalty to Arafat and his movement,
but also claim to operate with some autonomy, and that Arafat has no specific
prior knowledge of their attacks. This has produced such strange scenarios as a
March 2 suicide bombing that killed 10 people and was claimed by the Al Aqsa
Brigades while the Palestinian leadership simultaneously denounced it.
Israel says it’s a charade – that Arafat, whether or not he knows about attacks
in advance, cannot shirk responsibility for his organization. Also, it says, the
Palestinian Authority’s 40,000-strong security force could be ordered to crack
down on violent groups.
But the Palestinians say Israel makes that difficult by launching military strikes
that have destroyed some of Arafat’s offices and dozens of Palestinian security
Israel’s Public Security Ministry also says other documents suggest the
Palestinian uprising was planned in advance. The uprising began Sept. 29,
2000, the day after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, then the opposition leader,
made a controversial visit to a Jerusalem holy place claimed by both Jews and
Muslims. Palestinians say the uprising was a spontaneous response to Sharon’s
visit, and is aimed at ending the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank
and the Gaza Strip.