HEBRON — Fresh off a string of bloody attacks, the local cell of Islamic Jihad here is tying Palestinian officials in knots even as it has earned the respect of many Palestinians for the audacity of its sorties and its unrelenting fight against the Jewish state.
Consisting of no more than several score fighters, the Iranian-financed group, headquartered in Damascus, has executed some of the worst terrorist attacks during the bloody 28-month-long intifada, shooting its way to a fearsome reputation as the most radical Palestinian terrorist group in the territories.
So feared is the cell that mention of it drained the blood from the face of local intelligence chief Colonel Nizam Jabari, who spoke to the Forward at his office here. Even so, Jabari, chief of the Palestinian Authority General Intelligence Service for the southern third of the West Bank, downplayed the cell’s influence.
“Nah,” said Jabari with a wave of the hand. “Islamic Jihad is not nearly as strong as Hamas. It is Hamas that rules.” Unlike Hamas, another Islamic terrorist group that operates schools, clinics, and summer camps, Islamic Jihad boasts almost no social facilities. “It is purely military,” he said, indicating that its grassroots reach is minimal.
He then proceeded to count out on his fingers the “successes” of the Hebron cell, including an attack last April on the Adura settlement that killed five; a Hebron ambush that killed 12 security force members, including the Israeli army’s Hebron Brigade commander; another attempted attack outside the gates of Kiryat Arba, and most recently an attack in which four were murdered in a yeshiva in the Hebron-area settlement of Otniel. The cell, comprised of men in their late teens and early 20s, is led by a group of engineering students at the Hebron Polytechnic, a bastion of radical thought since the 1980s.
Despite the fact that Islamic Jihad is a relatively marginal group — it received about 2% support rating in recent Palestinian polls — its influence worries the dominant Palestinian faction, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah. Fatah is engaged in talks with Hamas now in Cairo, the putative goal of which is to secure a cease-fire within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. A senior Fatah political source told the Forward, however, that his group thinks Hamas is playing a double game. Fatah is eyeing a plot in which Hamas is using Islamic Jihad as a proxy in its plan to overtake the P.A., he said.
In this scheme, the official said, each new Islamic Jihad terrorist attack is designed to sap the power of the Fatah-controlled P.A., as Israel cracks down on it for its apparent complicity in the terrorism. As the P.A. weakens, he said, the Hamas political stratum remains relatively unaffected. By signing a deal promising a cease-fire within the 1967 borders, Hamas can buy itself international legitimacy. Its goal, however, is to bide its time until the P.A. disintegrates, all the while using Islamic Jihad to fight its war, effectively laying the burden of responsibility for the terrorism with the P.A., said the source. Even now, the official said, Hamas is now being courted on almost an equal footing with the P.A. by Egyptian, British and even American officials.
The end result “will be a militant Islamic state in the 1967 borders which will never be content until it takes all of Israel too,” he said flatly.
Israel, for its part, is hunting Islamic Jihad members intensively. The ranks of the local cell, likely never more than a dozen-strong, have been whittled away by increasing Israeli army actions. One member was shot as he fled the April attack on Adura. An accomplice was arrested the following day. Three other terrorists who battled Israeli troops in the shadow of the settlement of Kiyrat Arba in Hebron were killed in the fight. The Israeli army nabbed another two others in a Nablus-area cave. One of the cell’s chief recruiters and fundraisers, Muhammed Atawne, was arrested in August, and his house was destroyed last week.
“It is all about revenge and reaction,” Jabari said. “I’ve read in the Hebrew papers, while in prison, that most martyrs are ‘normal people.’ What they do is based less on ideology than reaction.” Their very normalcy, he added, makes it harder to track them down. For instance, even after their death notices were plastered all over Hebron few were willing to believe that the students were involved.
Sufian Sultar, head of the Polytechnic’s board, declined to comment on the cell at his school.
“[Islamic] Jihad has quickly gained ground since September,” said Nabil Kukali, president of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion. He believes that the increase of Islamic Jihad’s “quality operations” has bought it enormous support, as “the frustration among Palestinians grows, and hope shrinks.”
Part of the attraction stems from disillusionment with Fatah, the mainstay of Palestinian political and military activity for the last 40 years. As the P.A.’s corruption and weakness become manifest, youth are turning elsewhere, and seem to jump at the chance to join “an elite group,” Kukali said.
Many believe that Fatah has abandoned them, he added. This, combined with the fact that the Israeli army has tightened the noose on all Palestinian movement, and that the Palestinian economy has descended to the level of 20 years ago, makes for a “bad recipe,” Kukali said.
Asked if the 250 men at his disposal would be tasked with taking on the Islamic Jihad cell, Jabari laughed. “Half of [the terrorists] were once in my [now destroyed] prison. But now we are powerless. The IDF does not even let us wear uniforms, much less carry guns.”
“No,” he said, flattening the pleats of his gray suit, “they are completely out of our control.”