Some 25,000 people attended this week’s ceremony on election day for the Student Council in A-Najah University, Nablus. The annual democratic event reflects the political scene in the city. Only 7,000 of those who attended the ceremony were students in the university, recently described by Israel as a hot-bed for suicide bombers. Five of this last year’s suicide bombers came from A-Najah. Election campaigns focused on Israel’s assassinations in the West Bank in general, and in the Nablus region in particular.
Nablus has suffered twelve assassinations in 2001, more than any other city in the West Bank. Nine were directed against Hammas activists, two against Islamic Jihad activists, and one against a Fatah man, as the election results reflected. The more people a party lost to assassinations, the more support it got from voters. The Islamic block took more than 60 per cent of the Student Council seats. The Popular Front, which was never strong in Nablus, based its campaign on the assassination of its leader, Abu-Ali Mustafa, and on the assassination it carried out in retaliation, that of Israeli Minister Rehav’am Ze-evi. The PFLP won four times more representatives than it had before. It was the PFLP’s biggest achievement in A-Najah in the last twenty years. Fatah activists, with their slogan “The [Palestinian – A.R.] Authority, From Us and Within Us,” were insulted wherever they turned, and got only 25 percent of the votes.
A Long List Of Excuses
It is not only in the Nablus region that the assassinations have become a formative experience of the conflict with Israel. Undercover assassin units [in Hebrew: Mista’arvim, those who dress up as Arabs to assault Arabs – oznik-news] were introduced during the first Intifada after Israeli security forces had realized that nothing they did could stop the uprising. The assassination policy was reintroduced at a similar stage during this Intifada, it was the military’s response to its own sense of helplessness. Even without considering the moral issue, any attempt to find logic in this policy is doomed to fail. Talk was, at first, of turning the instigators of clashes with the army and settlers into wanted men on the run. Later, following suicide attacks inside Israel, a new term was invented, “focused prevention,” killing people who apparently pose an immediate danger, implying that they are “ticking bombs.”
The next stage was a cabinet decision to attack “known terrorists,” even when it was not claimed that these were about to carry out an attack. The last stage began after the attacks in the U.S. Now, after both Hammas and the Islamic Jihad have been ordered to halt their attacks, Israel has advanced into settling old accounts. A good example of this current stage was the assassination of 48 year old Issa Dababseh, on 7 November, in the village of Yata. The excuse: a never proven claim that Dababseh killed settler Dov Deriban during a heated argument in 1998. The IDF claims that this father of ten, a poor agricultural laborer not associated with any Palestinian organization, aimed a weapon at soldiers who came to arrest him, and was consequently shot to death.
The transition from a supposed prevention of terrorist attacks into vengeful assassinations, or killings aimed at terrorizing a whole region, took some months to take place. The Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group headed by Bassem Eid documented forty instances of planned assassinations aimed at specific targets, and twelve instances of death under vague circumstances.
Aside from moral questions regarding executions without a trial, Israel should ask of itself what it has achieved by these operations. Except for a certain sense of public satisfaction at revenge, the policy achieved nothing. Neither deterrence, nor the prevention of attacks, nor the creation of a cadaverous detente. On the other hand, the assassinations have turned whole regions in the West Bank into strongholds for Hammas and the militant wings of Fatah and the PFLP.
The assassinations so far were mostly directed at the high ranks of Hammas and the Jihad, at junior Fatah activists, and at leaders of local groups. In all regions, the main characteristic of the assassinations is grabbing an opportunity to kill, not considering the implications.
This policy, as mentioned above, has turned Hammas into the day’s winners in A-Najah. Even young women in elegant modern clothes, those usually threatened by the organization’s activists on campus, put Hammas ballots in the box. Few months after Israel eliminated the whole of Hammas’ military and political leadership in the area, the movement has already performed a startling come-back. This last July Israel killed the organization’s two leading political leaders, Jamal Mansour and Jamal Salim, with helicopter launched missiles. Two children who happened pass by, and five other Hammas activists were also killed in the event. In recent Hammas gatherings in the city the two were already replaced by Tayseer Amran and Ahmed Haj Ali, both of whom were among 480 Hammas people deported to Lebanon in 1994, and are highly honored in the city.
It is hard to evaluate the recovery of Hammas’ military arm, but Israeli security officials have talked, in the last few days, of a new Hammas group in the Nablus area, which plans the next suicide attacks. Unlike Fatah, which appeared to be in a coma during the seven Oslo years, Hammas already has a heritage of recovering from the loss of its leaders. Hammas has already seen the assassination of Az A-Din Al-Qassam heads, as well as sweeping detention of its political leadership, both by Israel and by the Palestinian Authority. Every detention wave is followed by a halt in operations, which lasts a few months, but is always recovered from.
The assassination of two Islamic Jihad men and one Fatah activist did not arouse the public in Nablus in a similar way. After Hammas’ success in A-Najah the Palestinian Authority will find it hard to arrest wanted [by Israel – oznik-news] Hammas activists, or to carry out measures against the movement in its mosques and charitable institutions. Hammas men are now saying that Fatah and PFLP people will not help the PA act against them.
Islamic Jihad: Jenin
On Wednesday the Palestinian Preventive Security tried to arrest Mahmoud Gourassi, head of Islamic Jihad in Jenin, a city that was a Fatah stronghold before this year’s events. Independent Tanzeem activists and Hammas activists prevented this arrest and forced the Preventive Security to transport Gourassi into hidden arrest, in an apartment in the city, a heavy political toll. The IDF carried out eight assassinations in Jenin this year. Four victims were associated with the Islamic Jihad, and four were associated with Fatah. In Jenin, like in Nablus, assassinations are supposedly aimed at everyone involved the armed struggle. This created unity among threatened activists, those who survived in spite of the PA’s helplessness and in spite of what they perceive as the PA’s collaboration with Israel. The assassination of Jihad leader Fathi Shqaqi in 1995, in Malta, froze the organization’s activities in the West Bank. The assassination of two Jihad heads in the West Bank in the current wave of assassinations, Anwar Houmran in Nablus, and Iyad Hardan in a phone booth in Jenin, marked the beginning of an unprecedented bloom for the organization; this was evident in the attacks it carried out and in IJ’s popularity on the street.
Fatah: Tul-Qarrem and Bethlehem
The assassination of Dr. Thabet Thabet, head of Tanzeem in Tul-Qarrem shot outside his home, was unusual. Thabet is the highest ranking Fatah activist assassinated to date. Since killing him, back in December 2000, Israel has only hit junior Fatah activists. Thabet was a Lt. Colonel in the Preventive Security, a PA branch that Israel does not, for the most part, attack. No dominant local leader associated with Fatah was assassinated after this operation, which aroused harsh responses inside Fatah. All assassinations directed at Fatah since this operation were carried out against the junior leaders of local Tanzeem cells. Thabet’s men, such as Ra’ed Karmi, continued their work, in spite of attempts to assassinate them.
The assassinations have turned Bethlehem, formerly the quietest city in the West Bank, into hell on earth. About a year ago, helicopter launched missiles killed Hussayn Abbayat, who headed a group of no more than ten armed activists. The assumption behind this assassination of a criminal character loosely associated with Fatah was that his death would lead to the dispersal of his group. Yousef Sawi, Abbayat’s partner in the business of arms smuggling across the Dead Sea, was assassinated at around the same time. To say that these killings did not achieve their goal would be an understatement. Atef Abbayat replaced his dead relative, consolidated his group and expanded its influence. After the assassination of Atef Abbayat in October a new heir now heads the group. The assassinations gave the group a magical aura.
In the case of Atef Abbayat the assassination policy achieved a tactical achievement. His death refuted Arafat’s claim that Abbayat was in PA detention. Still, the Abbayat family, whose dominance now feeds on its sons assassinations, has set the direction for the city of Bethlehem: a huge rise in the number of armed groups, all trying to imitate the original.
The assassination of the Popular Front’s leader, Abu-Ali Mustafa, in Ramallah, was a kiss of life for his all but forgotten organization. Following Mustafa’s death, the organization’s line was set by Ahmed Sa’adat, an extremist whose militant line is not supported by most of the PFLP’s people. When the head of an organization is murdered, the organization follows its extremist supporters. The PFLP’s reaction to the event – assassinating Israeli minister of tourism Rehav’am Ze-evi – marked the organization’s new policy and set new rules for the game which now apply to other organizations as well. The result: a surge in the PFLP’s popular esteem.
The assassinations have significantly damaged the PA’s ability to hold some rein over activists in the organizations. A day after the assassination of Jamal Mansour and Jamal Salim in Nablus, Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shalah said: “Computers the CIA has given the Palestinian Authority’s security forces serve the Zionist enemy in the killing of our sons.” This time Shalah, not a popular figure in the West Bank and Gaza, expressed a popular sentiment. Jibril Rajoub’s Preventive Security did its best, since the outbreak of clashes, to avoid confrontation with Israel, and to maintain the Oslo lines. It paid heavily. All the Palestinians assassinated since September 11, excepting Atef Abbayat, were Hammas people.
A prevalent claim among Hammas and Fatah activists is that 70 percent of the assassination victims, regardless of their affiliation, posed a threat or a bother to PA interests. Since the glory days of security cooperation with Netanyahu’s government, a way for Palestinians on Israel’s wanted men list to coexist with the PA was paved. The wanted men are required to leave communications channels open, to report to the PA occasionally, and to update the phone number, or the location where they can be found. Sometimes they are even forced into protective detention. The PA has not yet been accused of cooperating with a specific assassination that Israel carried out, but criticism of the Preventive Security, expressed in leaflets and slurs, is becoming more frequent. Activists on the ground, who have gotten used to their new independence, do not believe that the catching of suicide bombers on their way to the green line, or the assassination of careful Atef Abbayat, would have been possible without the PA’s cooperation. Many believe that giving a hand to the assassinations is how PA pays the American Government and the European nations who want it to fight against terrorism. It may not be long before these accusations will be made openly, and loudly.