A militant who defies cease-fire

A shooting last week highlights the danger Palestinian splinter groups pose to peace.

At a time when the major militant Palestinian groups have suspended their attacks on Israel, a strong voice in this overcrowded refugee camp in Lebanon continues to advocate the intifada.

Mounir Moqdah, a veteran Palestinian guerrilla commander, is using the Internet to fund and guide rogue cells of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade from his headquarters here. He works from a cluttered office guarded by grim-faced bodyguards and dominated by a map of Israel and the occupied territories.

From here he leads cells of militants based mainly in the West Bank towns of Jenin, Nablus, and Tulkarem. His group rejects the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire and has claimed responsibility for several shootings since the truce came into effect, including the killing last week of a Bulgarian construction worker in the West Bank.

The attacks are an embarrassment for the Palestinian Authority (PA) and undermine its pledge to observe the cease-fire and rein in militant groups.

And in a region where peace is fragile and reprisals are common, a single willful group of militants can put the entire road-map peace process in jeopardy.

"No one consulted us about this truce," he says. "We have said very clearly that we will never put down our arms while there is occupation and if one Palestinian prisoner remains in an Israeli jail."

Operating from his headquarters in the cramped and crowded alleyways of Ain al-Hilweh, Moqdah has tapped modern technology to participate directly in the intifada. He uses mobile phones and e-mail to communicate with his cadres, and the Internet to channel funds from Lebanon to the West Bank.

"Moqdah is a significant leader among Palestinians in Lebanon and a pain in the neck for the Palestinian Authority," says Nizar Hamzeh, professor of politics at the American University of Beirut. "He cannot be ignored or marginalized or under-estimated."

Last year, the Israeli security services learned from a captured Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade fighter that Moqdah had sent $40,000 to $50,000 to a bank account in Nablus to purchase arms and bomb-making equipment.

Another arrested militant claimed to have received weekly payments of $5,000 from Moqdah in exchange for information on attacks carried out by the group. Moqdah's cells are accused of carrying out multiple shootings and several suicide bombings. In 2001, the Israelis foiled a plan concocted by Moqdah to assassinate Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at his home in East Jerusalem.

Iranian funds?

Israel says Moqdah receives his funds from Iran and coordinates with Lebanon's Hizbullah organization. But he says all his funding comes from private donations.

"We receive donations from Palestinians in Lebanon and outside the country, from Arabs, from Islamic associations. We don't need state support," he says. Moqdah likens the group's structure to a "spider's web," saying it consists of semiautonomous cells independent of one another.

They reportedly include Kataeb al-Awda, the Battalions of Return, and Al Nathir, The Harbinger, two small groups that fall under the general banner of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. He refused to say how many fighters are under his command, but Israel and the Palestinian Authority say they number several dozen.

"It's a very well-organized network," Moqdah says. "The leaders of the cells are not known to people. There is a leadership committee which operates here in Lebanon, in Palestine, and even in Israeli jails."

The nebulous nature of his network is closer in structure to Al Qaeda than the hierarchical composition of traditional militant groups, such as the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas. It underlines how technology has radically altered the way in which militant underground organizations operate and how much harder it is, therefore, to combat them.

Moqdah said he formed the original Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in 1997 - known then as simply the Al Aqsa Brigade - naming a batch of freshly graduated fighters in Ain al-Hilweh after the Jerusalem mosque, Islam's third-holiest site.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, mainly composed of young militants from Yasser Arafat's Fatah and consisting of several different factions, came to public attention after the start of the intifada in September 2000. Moqdah says he established his network in the West Bank and Gaza at the onset of the intifada, using his followers who had accompanied Mr. Arafat from exile in Tunis to the Palestinian territories in 1994.

Friction with Fatah

Although nominally a colonel in Arafat's Fatah faction, Moqdah's rejection of the cease-fire places him in direct confrontation with the PA. Last week, Fatah formally relieved Moqdah of his command in Ain al-Hilweh, allegedly over his refusal to support Fatah in clashes in the camp against extremist Islamist factions.

Analysts believe the real intention behind Fatah's decision was to undermine Moqdah's power base in Ain al-Hilweh ahead of the expected cease-fire agreement.

"I don't believe in this truce at all," Moqdah says. "It won't last and the resistance will continue.... We are bored with all the promises and guarantees of the American administration. We have heard it all before and it has got us nowhere. We want liberation and independence and to be able to live in freedom and dignity."

Moqdah: in the crosshairs

Mounir Moqdah's rejection of the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire has made him a potential enemy of the Palestinian Authority. But it is not the first time that this fiery guerrilla fighter has been at odds with the mainstream Palestinian authorities.

A soft-spoken and lanky 43-year-old, only the automatic pistol on his hip and his military fatigues hint at his profession. His family is from the village of Al-Ghabissieh near Acre in northern Israel. His grandfather fled Palestine in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli war that created the state of Israel.

Mr. Moqdah joined the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1970 at age 10, and swiftly rose up the ranks to become a commander in Yasser Arafat's elite Force 17. Moqdah split from Mr. Arafat over the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993, although he retained his official status and rank within Fatah. Along with his supporters and disaffected Fatah members in Ain al-Hilweh, he formed the Black September 13 Brigades and grew to become the dominant military force in the camp.

Sentenced to death in absentia by Lebanon and Jordan, Moqdah lives permanently in Ain al-Hilweh, which, although ringed by Lebanese Army troops, lies beyond the jurisdiction of the Lebanese government.

He has been subject to numerous assassination attempts by the Israelis. In April 1996, he narrowly survived a missile attack on his headquarters by Israeli helicopter gunships. He says the most recent attempt by the Israelis to kill him occurred two years ago, when Israeli agents placed poison in one of his shoes while he was praying in a mosque in the camp.

"I saw this spot in my shoe and I was suspicious," he says. The substance was sent for analysis initially in Lebanon then to France. "The Lebanese didn't know what it was, but the French recognized it as a poison. It was the same poison Mossad used against Khaled Meshaal," he says, referring to a bungled attempt by Israeli Mossad agents to assassinate the head of the Hamas politburo in Jordan by pouring poison into his ear.

The Mossad agents were caught by Jordanian police, sparking a diplomatic row. The Israelis were forced to hand over the antidote to save the dying Meshaal in exchange for the release of the Mossad agents.

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