March 14, 2002
TULKARM, West Bank – A leader of the largest Palestinian terrorist group
spearheading suicide bombings and other attacks against Israel says he is
following the orders of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
“Our group is an integral part of Fatah,” says Maslama Thabet, 33, a
leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Fatah, headed by Arafat, is the largest
group in the Palestinian Authority, the government of the autonomous
Thabet spoke from the Tulkarm refugee camp, where he was holed up
with about 300 of his heavily armed followers as hundreds of Israeli soldiers
swept through the town. Over the past two weeks, Israel has launched massive
incursions into Palestinian towns and refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza
in search of terrorists.
“The truth is, we are Fatah itself, but we don’t operate under the name of
Fatah,” he said in a recent interview. “We are the armed wing of the
organization. We receive our instructions from Fatah. Our commander is Yasser
Spokesmen for Arafat give differing responses when asked about his ties to
Thabet and the brigade.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, Arafat’s chief spokesman, says he has never heard
of Thabet. “The president has nothing to do with these things, he has nothing
to say about this issue,” Rudeineh says.
But Mohammed Odwan, Arafat’s foreign media spokesman, confirms that the
brigade is “loyal to President Arafat.”
“They are working for the interests of the Palestinian people,” Odwan says.
“They are fighting because they think these kind of operations – and I agree –
will push forward their independence and their dream of freedom.”
Israeli security officials concede Arafat is not involved in directing the
on-the-ground operations of militant groups, but they say his regular calls for
holy war against Israel’s occupation have been taken up as a directive by the
In a televised address Saturday, as Palestinian terrorists launched suicide
attacks in Netanya and Jerusalem, Arafat urged Palestinians to “sacrifice
themselves as martyrs in jihad (holy war) for Palestine.”
“When Arafat stands in front of a crowd and calls for millions of martyrs to
march on Jerusalem and holy war against Israel, he is giving a clear directive to
his followers,” says Reserve Col. Eran Lerman, former head of research for
Israeli Military Intelligence and now the Jerusalem director of the American
“Marwan Barghouti (secretary-general of Fatah in the West Bank) and
the local leaders below him take that directive and transform it into actions. …
Arafat does not personally approve individual operations, but he provides the
money for Barghouti’s terrorism.”
Barghouti, who often is on the guest list at dinners with Arafat in the
Palestinian leader’s compound in Ramallah, confirmed last week that one of his
lieutenants who was killed in an Israeli assassination was a member of the
Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
The link between the brigade and Arafat signals a turning point in the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It means the Palestinian leadership has openly allied
itself with a terrorist group. Palestinian officials openly say dealing in death, not
diplomacy, is the only viable way to achieve their end: an independent
As the Palestinians have ramped up their attacks on Israeli targets, Israel has
escalated its response. The result has been some of the worst violence the
region has seen in decades. More than 200 people have died — 163
Palestinians and 59 Israelis — since the beginning of March. More than 1,500
people have been killed in the past 17 months, more than 1,000 of them
Israel’s incursions into Palestinian territory reached a new level this
week: 20,000 troops were deployed, and they searched house-to-house for
terrorists and weapons. It has been the biggest Israeli military operation since
its invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
The emergence of a radical young branch of Arafat’s Fatah faction comes as no
surprise to Mahmoud Muhareb, a Palestinian professor of political science at
Al-Quds University in Jerusalem.
“They are under siege, under blockade and almost at the edge of
starvation,” he says. “When you dehumanize the life of human beings, they end
up feeling their life is not worthy. Five years ago, you might find one suicide
bomber in an entire city. Today, it is different. There are many, because they
feel there is no meaning to their lives.”
Palestinian Authority officials say most members of the brigade receive
salaries from Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. For example, the leader of
the brigade in Nablus, Nasser Awes, is a salaried officer in the Palestinian
National Security Force, one of 14 armed police and security services that
report to Arafat. In the past two weeks, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade has
claimed responsibility for attacks including:
- A suicide bombing March 2 in Jerusalem that killed 10 Israelis and
- A sniper ambush on a West Bank checkpoint on March 3 that killed 10
Israelis and wounded four.
- The shooting attack on a seaside hotel late Saturday in Netanya, north of
Tel Aviv, that killed two Israelis and injured dozens.
- An ambush in northern Israel on Tuesday in which gunmen wearing Israeli
army uniforms killed six Israelis before soldiers shot two of the attackers
Israeli police say they thwarted a string of other planned attacks by the group in
The brigade, unknown until a year ago, has become the largest armed
Palestinian group operating in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel. Unlike two other
major Palestinian militant groups, the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic
Jihad, the brigade is secular. The group grew out of the Fatah youth movement
known as the Tanzim.
Under the 1993 Oslo peace accords that stated only Palestinian
security services may bear arms, Tanzim is an illegal militia of about 10,000
armed young men headed by Barghouti.
As the terrorist wing of Arafat’s Fatah faction, the brigade has the support of
the largest political and military faction in the Palestinian Authority.
Hussein A-Sheikh, a Fatah political leader in the West Bank, seems
insulted when asked whether the brigade is under Arafat’s control. “Of course,
there is control,” he snaps. “What do you think? That we are just a bunch of
The Israeli army says Fatah, fueled by the brigade’s lethal activities, has
surpassed Hamas in Israeli fatalities.
Hamas killed 100 Israelis in 2001 and Fatah killed 45, the army says, but
since the start of 2002, Fatah has killed 57 Israelis while Hamas has killed 27.
The brigade also introduced a lethal twist to its attacks: female suicide
bombers. Wafa Idris killed an elderly man and wounded 50 people in a suicide
attack Jan. 27 in Jerusalem. A woman blew herself up at a West Bank army
checkpoint on Feb. 27, injuring two soldiers.
Thabet, who commands the brigade in Tulkarm, attained notoriety a year ago
when, with his friend Raed Karmi, he kidnapped and executed two Israeli
restaurateurs who had stopped in Tulkarm for lunch.
Karmi, founder of the brigade in Tulkarm, died in an explosion in January
in a suspected Israeli assassination. Palestinian security forces arrested Thabet
last year. He was released, as were dozens of other suspected terrorists.
“Our struggle is against the Israeli occupation,” Thabet said. “We are prepared
to fight to the last fighter against (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon and his
war machine. … Israel must pay a heavy price for the atrocities and massacres
which they are perpetrating on a daily basis against the Palestinian people.”