Israeli amnesty offer divides militants
Al Aqsa members are skeptical that the disarmament deal will yield concrete results.
Nablus, West Bank
Sitting with a heavily bandaged right hand at his office in Nablus, Faiz Tirawi says the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade is as committed as ever to pushing Israel out of all the land it seized in 1967 – by force if necessary. And he seethes at the "treachery" of the Islamist group Hamas, which he describes as the tool of a "dangerous Iranian agenda for Palestine."Skip to next paragraph
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But it wasn't a clash with either of these two old enemies of the Fatah movement, which spawned his brigade, that injured his hand. Instead, the head of Al Aqsa's Nablus unit ruefully explains that it was sprained when he lost his temper and punched an Al Aqsa comrade last week after Israel extended a controversial amnesty offer to wanted Al Aqsa militants.
"I think Israel's policy is to try to destroy Al Aqsa by turning Palestinians on other Palestinians, and some of our leaders aren't being careful enough about this," says Mr. Tirawi. And it's not just him. Al Aqsa's wing in Gaza called the agreement to relinquish weapons "shameful. We carry weapons for one reason; liberating Jerusalem and establishing an independent Palestinian state, which has not been achieved,'' it reads. "This agreement is going to strengthen other factions who fight the occupation. We urgently appeal to the resistance to avoid falling into this trap."
The goal: Strengthen Abbas, secure Israel
Israeli officials and the Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas, who now only governs the West Bank after losing Gaza to Hamas in a brief civil war last month, says the idea is to strengthen Mr. Abbas while improving security for Israel, something that country demands as a precondition before making meaningful concessions toward peace.
But the signs of deepening mistrust and factional violence in Nablus and other West Bank cities bode ill for the prospects of disarmament by Fatah-linked militias or a turning away from political violence.
If the cracks continue to widen, the process could end up weakening Abbas – who already suffers from the absence of a militant pedigree and the perception of many Palestinians that he's too close to the US and Israel – rather than helping him.
Israel has promised to cancel the arrest warrants for 178 Al Aqsa members if they promise not to participate in attacks against Israel and agree to a three-month period of disarmament and containment, after which they will be absorbed into the uniformed, armed security services loyal to Abbas.
Militants insist on concrete progress
While numerous militants in the West Bank have accepted the amnesty offer, those interviewed by the Monitor caution that if no progress is made on key issues such as a return to the 1967 borders and an end to Israeli incursions into the West Bank, the disarmament will be short-lived. They also are calling for more Al Aqsa militants to be included on the list; in the Nablus area, 121 are included while an estimated 270 are excluded, including Tirawi and his brother Jamal, a senior Al Aqsa and Fatah member who was elected to the Palestinian parliament.
"For now, I've stopped resistance to occupation. The Palestinian Authority has promised that my life will improve as a result," says Mehdi Meruka, an Al Aqsa member who is tired after two years on the run and is cooperating with the amnesty plan. "But you have to remember that this agreement is just ink on paper. If more of my comrades aren't amnestied, if the Israelis don't stop incursions, and if progress towards a state on 1967 borders isn't made, of course we'll rise again."
He says new weapons can easily be obtained and says that to characterize what's going on as an Al Aqsa surrender is wrong. Then during a discussion of his family, he cheerfully shows a video on his phone of his three young sons – all under age 11 – learning to shoot his American-made M-16 and M-4 guns.
Many Palestinians believe the amnesty is less about directly strengthening Israel's security and more about strengthening Fatah's ability to use its security services to target Hamas in the West Bank to prevent it from strengthening its position there and prevent it, perhaps, from eventually taking power there. A number of the men offered amnesty have been deeply involved in operations against Hamas this year.