Vol. 1, No. 16 January 24, 2002
The twin attacks by Fatah gunmen on a Hadera bat mitzvah celebration last week and on Israeli civilian pedestrians in Jerusalem this week have brought back into focus the military wings of the Fatah organization and the responsibility of its leadership, particularly Yasser Arafat and Marwan Barghouti, for these operations. Ironically, West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti has been touted over the last year in the Western press as one of the possible successors to Yasser Arafat. Perhaps as a way of making his mark with the U.S. administration, Barghouti, in fact, wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post on January 16, 2002, presenting himself as a moderate Palestinian leader with limited political aims, who also renounces terrorism and advocates only the Palestinians’ right to self-defense:
“And while I, and the Fatah movement to which I belong, strongly oppose attacks and the targeting of civilians inside Israel (emphasis added), our future neighbor, I reserve the right to protect myself, to resist the Israeli occupation of my country and to fight for my freedom.”
Yet one day after Barghouti’s piece appeared, a member of Fatah’s Tanzim militia attacked the bat mitzvah party, killing six civilians and wounding over thirty. Israeli security sources have firmly established that Marwan Barghouti knew of the Hadera bat mitzvah attack in advance, and gave it his blessing (Yediot Ahronot, January 20, 2002). Notably, the Palestinian Authority failed to issue its routine condemnation of the subsequent Fatah attack on Israeli pedestrians in Jerusalem (Ha’aretz, January 24, 2002). The entire episode raises questions about Fatah’s emerging strategy in this phase of Yasser Arafat’s intifada.
Background on Barghouti
Marwan Barghouti was born on June 5, 1960, in the West Bank, outside of Ramallah. He was one of the founders of the Shabiba, the Fatah youth organization; he graduated from Bir Zeit University, majoring in history, and served as a student leader. Fatah, which is a reverse acronym in Arabic for the “movement for the liberation of Palestine,” is the largest constituent organization in the PLO, and is headed personally by Yasser Arafat. Expelled by Israel in the late 1980s, Barghouti served in PLO headquarters in Tunis. He returned to the West Bank in 1994. He was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council, created by the 1995 Oslo II Interim Agreement, in 1996.
Barghouti initially came into prominence because of his willingness to speak out against the corruption of the Palestinian Authority leadership. He, thus, tried to distinguish himself from “the Tunisians,” the PLO exile leadership that accompanied Yasser Arafat to the West Bank and Gaza Strip with the implementation of the Oslo accords. In 1995, Arafat set up the Tanzim (“organization” in Arabic) as a paramilitary force of the Fatah, separate from the Palestinian Authority. This provided Arafat a certain distance and deniability regarding its attacks on Israelis, instead of his using the Palestinian Authority security services. Nonetheless, Arafat directly arms and finances the Tanzim. Barghouti, who helped found the Tanzim, is regarded as its commander, with Arafat’s full backing. When Barghouti lost the last election for the position of General Secretary of Fatah, Arafat cancelled the election results.
Barghouti and the Outbreak of the October 2000 Intifada
In a revealing interview with the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat (September 29, 2001), Barghouti admitted his critical role in igniting the October 2000 intifada in both the West Bank and Gaza, as well as among the Israeli Arabs:
“I knew that the end of September was the last period (of time) before the explosion, but when Sharon reached the al-Aqsa Mosque, this was the most appropriate moment for the outbreak of the intifada….The night prior to Sharon’s visit, I participated in a panel on a local television station and I seized the opportunity to call on the public to go to the al-Aqsa Mosque in the morning, for it was not possible that Sharon would reach al-Haram al-Sharif just so, and walk away peacefully. I finished and went to al-Aqsa in the morning….We tried to create clashes without success because of the differences of opinion that emerged with others in the al-Aqsa compound at the time….After Sharon left, I remained for two hours in the presence of other people, we discussed the manner of response and how it was possible to react in all the cities (bilad) and not just in Jerusalem. We contacted all (the Palestinian) factions.”
In the evening of the same day, Barghouti traveled to the Arab Triangle inside Israel where he was to participate in a conference. He confessed: “While we were in the car on the way to the Triangle, I prepared a leaflet in the name of the Higher Committee of Fatah, coordinated with the brothers (e.g., Hamas), in which we called for a reaction to what happened in Jerusalem.”
Despite Barghouti’s repeated claim that he only seeks with the intifada to “end the occupation” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he told The New Yorker on July 9, 2001, that if he received a 100% withdrawal of Israel, he would still seek “bigger things”: namely, “one state for all the peoples.” In short, he does not seek coexistence with Israel.
New Fatah Military Organizational Frameworks
Barghouti’s Tanzim, in fact, were the main force organizing the intifada in early October 2000 (Ronni Sheked, Yediot Ahronot, October 3, 2000). Two important organizational developments followed. First, Barghouti became the head of a joint coordinating body of all Palestinian organizations in the West Bank (Fatah, PFLP, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad) known as the “Nationalist and Islamic Forces.” Subsequently, Fatah established joint units with Hamas and Islamic Jihad for operations against Israel beginning in early 2001.
Second, during October 2000, Fatah created a special unit for armed operations against Israel: the “Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades.” Tanzim commanders like Atef Abiyat in Bethlehem doubled as the local commander of the “Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades.” In October 2001, Abiyat was the victim of a deadly “work accident,” despite Arafat’s claim that he was imprisoned in a Palestinian jail.
Raed Karmi, the Tanzim leader from Tulkarm who served under the command of Marwan Barghouti, and who also suffered a “work accident” while allegedly in PA custody, was another member of the “Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades.” Karmi was responsible for the death of at least nine Israelis and was planning a new wave of terrorism before he died. Palestinian spokesmen have justified their latest attacks as a response to Karmi’s death.
The Tanzim, along with Yasser Arafat’s personal bodyguard, Force-17, are responsible for approximately 50 percent of the terrorist attacks against Israelis, according to the IDF. Like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Fatah-Tanzim targets Israeli civilians without distinction, including women and children. Thus, Fatah-Tanzim is no less a terrorist organization today than Hamas or Islamic Jihad.
Fatah’s Strategy of Escalation
Until recently, Fatah divided responsibility for terrorist attacks against Israel with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, with its own forces attacking Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while Hamas and Islamic Jihad concentrated their efforts inside pre-1967 Israel itself. Yet after the two recent Fatah attacks in Hadera and the heart of Jerusalem, this division of responsibility seems to have broken down, with Fatah fully engaged in armed operations against Israel everywhere, with no geographical limitations. Israel has always rejected such distinctions, condemning terrorist attacks against its citizens wherever they occurred.
Israel’s new head of military intelligence, Major-General Aharon Ze’evi (Farkash), told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on January 22 that Israel had now to brace itself for an unprecedented wave of new terrorist attacks inside Israeli cities, largely due to Tanzim’s plan to avenge Karmi’s death for 40 days (Ma’ariv, January 23, 2002). The new weaponry seized by Israel on the Palestinian Authority ship Karine-A this month indicates Palestinian intentions to acquire greater capabilities for a new level of warfare against Israel in the near term.
According to all indications, this strategic shift in Fatah could only transpire through the personal order of Fatah head Yasser Arafat and his West Bank operations chief Marwan Barghouti.