On Tuesday, a few hours after Yuri Gushtzin was murdered and his body dumped near the slaughterhouse in Ramallah, the “el-Aksa Martyrs Brigades,” the military arm of Fatah, took responsibility for the murder.

The announcement was no different from dozens of press releases published in recent months with the signature of the organization, taking responsibility for shooting attacks, bombs, mortar fire and other murderous actions. Since the beginning of the Intifada the el-Aksa Martyrs Brigades have played a vital role in leading the armed struggle against Israel. On the West Bank, in the Gaza Strip and inside the Green Line, some 6,000 terror attacks were carried out in this period, the decisive majority of them by the el-Aksa Martyrs Brigades.

The name of the commander of the organization, which has established itself as the central military wing of the Fatah movement, is Haj Abu Ahmad. Israel’s intelligence arms have no picture of Haj Abu Ahmad, nor do they have any other identifying details. There are those who say that he is hiding in Nablus, while others say that he is abroad, pulling the strings of terror from there. Hussam Khadr, one of the leaders of the Tanzim in the Balata refugee camp, says that Abu Ahmad is nothing more than an invention of Israeli Intelligence.

The mystery that surrounds the identity of the commander Abu Ahmad, reveals much about the organization’s operational methods. Maximum secrecy, compartmentalization of underground cells, operations in small groups, cruel acts of terror, and the most significant point: unconditional and unquestioning loyalty to Yasser Arafat. For them, he is the source of authority for carrying out acts of terror.

For Arafat, the el-Aksa Martyrs Brigades are a central tool in controlling the height of the flames of the Intifada. They don’t need to receive an explicit directive from him in order to decrease or escalate the level of terror attacks. They know how to translate the Rais’s body language, his expressions, his tone and the meaning of his words, into the rhythm of bursts of Kalachnikov fire.

Dahlan and Tirawi Sign Up

A few days after the outbreak of the Intifada, when developments already pointed at long-term fighting, Arafat needed an extra-governmental military wing not identified with the Palestinian Authority institution, which would be loyal to his policies, obey his orders, receive wide support on the Palestinian street and, most importantly, would be strong enough to fight against the settlers and IDF soldiers. The goal of the establishment of this organization was to consolidate all of the Fatah fighters under the new framework in order to improve the fighting capability of the Palestinians in the armed struggle against Israel.

The military core group of Fatah, the movement headed by Arafat, answered all of these criteria. The process of building the el-Aksa Martyrs Brigades took several months. In an attempt to give the new body a measure of operational momentum, and thus also turn up the level of the Intifada a few notches, Arafat allowed his security organizations — Mohammed Dahlan, commander of the Palestinian GSS in Gaza, and Tawfiq Tirawi, commander of General Intelligence in the West Bank — to join the fighting under the umbrella of the el-Aksa Martyrs Brigades.

The organization was established in stages, not in one fell swoop. The first shot was fired in Nablus, on October 12, 2000, during a military parade attended by several hundred Fatah members armed with a wide range of weapons: pistols, rifles, sub-machine guns, and hand grenades. In a ceremony held at the end of the parade, the establishment of the “armed militias” was announced. Three or four days later, announcements were already being released, signed by the el-Aksa Martyrs Brigades. After Nablus came Ramallah, Gaza, Khan Yunis, Hebron, Bethlehem and other cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Fighting cells were also established in towns under Israeli security control. The process of establishing a firm base for the organization took several months. Today, the organization already includes most of Fatah’s fighting activists.

The Language of the Rifle

In September of 1993, after the historic handshake between Arafat and Rabin on the White House lawn in Washington, Fatah announced a halt to its armed actions against Israel. Contrary to Israeli expectations, Arafat did not turn Fatah into a political party, instead building the movement as a popular organization with military characteristics in order to provide him with a lever to bring out the masses for confrontations with Israel, and also to use in armed struggle when the time came. So it was, for example, during the Tunnel Riots of September 1996, the Nakba Day riots of May 2000 and, of course, in the el-Aksa Intifada.

In contradiction to the agreements, which required Arafat to confiscate illegal weapons, he did not disarm Fatah. On the contrary, he provided it with weapons and ammunition from PA warehouses, and PA officers trained cadres of fighters from among Fatah youth.

Military power was kept decentralized, in separate groups on a local level, mainly in the refugee camps. Arafat did not fight against them, and forgave them when they attacked the PA or when they acted like street hoodlums.

Immediately after the establishment of the PA, many groups of veteran Fatah fighters were posted to the intelligence organizations commanded by Rajoub, Dahlan, or Tirawi, but their loyalty was and still is to the mother movement, Fatah.

When the Intifada broke out, it was easy to establish the el-Aksa Martyrs Brigades on this base. And since the outbreak of fighting, Fatah has renewed, widened and broadened the base of its military wing. The call was easily answered: these are fighters who wanted to show their abilities and military power, fighters who are loyal to Fatah ideology, and who believe that the peace process has failed. [… ]

A week ago the el-Aksa Martyrs Brigades released a pamphlet detailing the ideology that guides them: “The ten hungry years of the peace process proved that the Zionist occupation that disturbs the heart of the Palestinian homeland understands nothing but the language of rifles and fire and the language of revolution and the bullets of the revolutionary fighters. Jerusalem is Arab and Muslim land and not one grain of its soil can be given up. The return of the refugees to their homes is the heart of the problem and its foundation, and any concession on their rights is considered treachery. Unity is the main gate to the liberation of Palestine.” [… ]

According to Israeli assessments, the el-Aksa Martyrs Brigades include several hundred active fighters; of those only a few dozen are in the operational cells which are carrying out the shooting attacks and planting bombs. The upkeep of such units requires a large amount of money for salaries, vehicles, the purchase of weapons and ammunition, and operational costs such as apartment rentals. The organization is believed to be funded by the Palestinian Authority in the framework of the budget allocated to Fatah.

The military wing of Fatah is at the height of a process of growth and stabilization. This is an organized system that coordinates actions between various sectors and transfers weapons from place to place. Thus, for example, on July 2nd, terrorists of the el-Aksa Martyrs Brigades carried out five attacks in various parts of the West Bank at almost the same time, and the organization’s headquarters took responsibility for the attacks in one press release. The attacks were as follows: the murder of Yair Har-Sinai at the settlement of Susya in the southern Hebron Hills, the murder of Rabbi Aharon Abidayan in Baka el-Sharkiya, shooting at an IDF position at the settlement of Beit El, the wounding of a settler at the settlement of Bracha near Nablus, and the ambush of an IDF force in the southern part of the village of Hawra near Nablus.

The el-Aksa Martyrs Brigades are also the base of a political force which is growing in importance and developing its own agenda. The Brigades receive wide support in the Palestinian public, almost a consensus. They represent those who led the Oslo process and now oppose it, like the vast majority of the Palestinian population. Whoever is crowned commander of the organization will have a strong power base for future political action.

This article ran in Yediot Aharonot, July 27th, 2001