It is not yet clear who ordered the double car-bomb attack in Tiberias and Haifa on September 5. Yet it is clear that Hamas has the motivation and the intention to perpetrate terrorist attacks that could derail the new track taken by the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) with the signing of the Sharm al-Sheikh agreement for the implementation of the Wye Protocol.
Hamas decides to resume armed attacks after “a self-imposed moratorium”
According to the monthly Palestinian Times (September 1999), which can be considered the mouthpiece of Hamas, the Islamic movement has apparently decided to resume armed attacks on Israeli targets, particularly Israeli soldiers and settlers “after a self-imposed moratorium lasting nearly ten months.”
According to this information, this decision has found expression in a series of recent shootings and ambushes in the West Bank and in Israel, the most serious of which occurred on 10 August when Akram Alkam, a 23-year-old Palestinian youth from a Bethlehem refugee camp, rammed his car into a group of Israeli soldiers awaiting to be lifted to their bases, injuring eight soldiers before he was himself shot dead.
The suicide-driver didn’t have any “formal” affiliation with Hamas. However, says the newspaper, a strong hint of the movement’s influence was sufficiently clear in his behavior. Hamas eventually did take credit for the operation.
Palestinian Times stresses the fact that an ordinary, un-indoctrinated Palestinian like Alkam was willing to carry out “martyrdom operations” with his own meager means, which should be viewed as a striking success for Hamas.
“The movement, after all, can now boast of succeeding in transforming 'martyrdom' from a political faction’s monopoly into a popular practice, which makes it all the more difficult for Israel and, for that matter, its subservient puppet entity, Yasser Arafat’s PA, to control future attacks against Zionist targets,” writes PT.
The Hamas military wing, Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, did take credit for at least one other attack: the shooting incident in the Old Town of Hebron in early August in which two Jewish settlers were wounded. Three other incidents, including one near the northern West Bank town of Jenin, in which an Israeli immigrant from the former Soviet Union was killed, are also believed to have been carried out by Hamas.
A fourth attack was probably aborted when an explosive device went off inside a storehouse in Hebron on 15 August. PA police said two Islamist brothers, who had been released from Israeli jails after serving a five-year jail sentence for belonging to Hamas, were preparing a plastic toy-car bomb attack for detonation at an Israeli settlement site in downtown Hebron.
Palestinian Times claims that so far the attacks have been “relatively minor and generally un-qualitative in nature,” but that the message they were intended to convey was sufficiently clear for all parties concerned, particularly Israel and the PA.
Why then the Hamas has been so quiet on the terrorist front for the last year and why is it pleased even by such “minor, low-quality” assaults by untrained “popular” teams or individuals? Hamas leaders, for their part, were very frank in explaining the difficulties encountered by the military wing in its operational activity.
Operational difficulties for Hamas’ terrorist activity
The Jordanian newspaper Al-Urdun interviewed Hamas spokesman Ibrahim Ghosheh on 24 Oct. 1998 and asked him why following the attempt on Khaled Mash'al and the assassination of the Awdallah brothers, Hamas threatened to take revenge, but did nothing to carry it out. Ghosheh cited the Israeli prime minister Netanyahu in an interview: “For two years now, almost since I took over in June 1996, the security organs have not stopped tracking down al-Qassam operations and foiling operations almost daily.” As to the Palestinian security organs, Ghosheh said, “they, too, have not stopped hunting down our mujahidin….The fact is, Palestinian security organs know every detail. They are the ones which laid their hands on the explosives factory for the mujahidin in Nabulus and before that the ones in Bayt Sahur and Hebron. It was the PA security organs which seized the materials which the mujahidin use in their struggle.”
Nevertheless, Ghosheh promised that Hamas “will resist through awareness, popular move, and the forces that can go ahead with their jihad, as jihad operations will be the best reply to this conspiracy. We know that many jihad operations have produced significant political results…Our Palestinian people, he said, are very close to Hamas' program. Resistance should take place every day at least with stabs or shooting from machine guns, and this is what the Zionist planners have failed to curb."
Mussa Abu-Marzuq was asked by Hamas’ monthly Filastin AL-Muslimah on June, 1st 1999 what is the secret behind the absence of the Hamas movement from the field of military action all this time? He replied that the “absence was not a decision but an expression of the realities of the balance of forces on the ground. Struggle and jihad are in an ebb and tide. Those who have rights will not allow their rights to be blown with the wind. They strongly believe that jihad is the way to regain our rights and protect our honor.”
The same day, Khaled Mash'al, Hamas’ Head of the Political Bureau, was interviewed by the Lebanese al-Diyar and asked why the operations mounted by Hamas inside Israel have fallen in number. Mash'al replied: “There is no change in Hamas' view that resistance must continue. Resistance in Palestine, however, is being subjected to immense pressure and challenges. The situation in Palestine is the exact opposite of that in Lebanon, which possesses an abundance of positive factors. Naturally, this pleases us and we hail this embracing of the resistance by the people and the government, the political cover provided by Syria, and the Islamic support extended by Iran. As for Palestine, the resistance is subjected to a trilateral security siege…the
Zionists, the Palestinian Authority, and the United States, represented by CIA intervention….There is a plot against the resistance represented by efforts to discover resistance cells to hand them over to the authorities, in addition to the pursuit of freedom fighters. Furthermore, the battle arena there is restricted and does not have background openings, because the Arab borders are completely blocked. Despite this, he claimed, ”the resistance in Palestine can succeed in breaking the will of the Zionists.”
The “internal” leadership gave more or less the same explanations for Hamas’ operational weakness. Mahmud Al-Zahhar from Gaza told the London Al-Majallah (15-21 Aug. 1999) that “the modus operandi of resistance in Hamas depends upon military targets, soldiers and settlers. But major restrictions, especially after the signing of the Wye River agreement, prevented the implementation of a large number of operations. The Palestinian jails are full of the sons of Hamas who were arrested as they were trying to carry out operations or as a result of confessions. Some of these operations were aborted the last minute… Hence, the operations continue but the attempts to abort them also continue. It is a real war in which we win one and lose one.”
Finally, Ramadan Abdallah Shalah, the secretary general of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) declared to the Dubai Al-Bayan (29 Jul. 1999) that “carrying out military operations inside Palestine depends on the circumstances and resources of the strugglers there. Any objective observer can see the security cooperation that is taking place among the Israeli occupation authorities, the Palestinian Authority and the CIA with a view to encircling and aborting the Jihad action while it is still in the phase of formation. They are arresting and liquidating our strugglers...We, in the Islamic Jihad Movement, are facing enormous challenges and obstacles. Even our military action is the target of distortion,fabrications and a dirty psychological warfare being waged by the proponents of the Oslo accords. Nevertheless, the will for Jihad and martyrdom still exists in our people.”
Hamas attempts to rebuild its military infrastructure
However, according to the last issue of Palestinian Times, Hamas’ military wing has been undergoing an arduous rebuilding and restructuring process following the killing of a number of its top leaders by Israeli soldiers and undercover agents in the last few years.
The Hamas leadership is convinced that the terrorist campaign favors in fact the interests of the Palestinians on the long run. Moreover a Hamas official based in Jordan alleged that renewed attacks on Israel would actually strengthen the Palestinian negotiating position. According to PT, a senior Hamas official based in Ramallah, who asked for anonymity, stated that “the resumption of armed struggle against the Zionist entity carries with it the message that there can be no real peace or stability in this region as long as the Palestinians don’t receive their dues in full.”
More important, claims Palestinian Times, is the fact that Hamas has probably come to realize that it no longer has much to lose by renewing attacks on Israeli targets, as the PA continues to intern hundreds of Islamist activists without charge or trial, apparently to appease Israel and the United States and to ward off their tendentious charges that the PA doesn’t combat terrorism effectively. Hamas doesn’t place all the blame for these arrests, and, indeed, for the continued and seemingly open-ended incarceration of its internees in PA custody, solely on the PA. Israel remains the prime and ultimate culprit that forces the PA to act virtually at its beck and call. This, Hamas reasons, makes armed struggle against Israel inevitable even if undesirable.
Another reason for the enhanced terrorist activity of Hamas, given by its Internet website on Sept. 5, 1999, is the mounting pressure on the organization to kidnap Israeli soldiers as abargaining chip for its own imprisoned militants. One Islamist activist, who opted to keep his name anonymous said "the Islamicmovement will have to do something to give our prisoners hope…Arafat doesn’t represent us, and he doesn't give a damn if our brothers remained in Zionist jails for thirty years to come…we have to do something.”
Israeli Arab militants could be a solution for Hamas’ difficulties
According to the Israeli Haaretz, five Israeli citizens were arrested September the 6th on suspicion of being involved in Sunday's abortive car bomb attacks in Tiberias and Haifa. Positive identifications were made on two of the three terrorists killed in the blasts as being Israeli Arabs.
Little has been disclosed about the investigation by the Israeli Security Service and the police into the bombings. The court accepted the police's request to withhold details of the investigation, claiming that it included information that could be a “ticking bomb.”
The investigation into the two attacks, as well as the investigation into the murder of two hikers in Megiddo last week, point to a clear connection of the perpetrators to the Islamic Movementin Israel. Senior Israeli security sources expressed concern yesterday over the trend of extremism in the movement, and over the connection of some of its activists with Islamic terrorist organizations in the territories, but this is a complex subject which should be dealt in another article.
Anyhow, there were other cases in the past when Israeli Arabs were recruited by Islamic terrorist organizations, like Sai’d Suleiman, who smuggled to Israel the PIJ suicide bomber who blew himself near the Dizengoff Center building in Tel-Aviv, in March 1996.
There are hints in the Israeli press that Hamas may be behind this operation, in the preparation of the car-bombs and the sending of the drivers to the heart of Israel. It is possible even that the drivers were not aware of the technical details of the bombs, which could mean that they did not intend to make suicide but were themselves victims of their manipulators.
From Hamas’ point of view, if it will emerge that it stood behind the double car-bombing, there are several advantages to adopt this new modus-operandi:
* Israeli Arabs have more facility to act freely and assist in terrorist activity on Israeli territory, supplanting thus the failing cadre of the organization in the territories.
* The participation of Israeli Arabs in such kind of operation means that the important Arab community, which on the whole has shown during the years moderation and restraint, could be dragged into a conflict with the Jewish population.
* The relations with the Palestinian Authority would be eased, as Hamas could not be accused of using its territory for terrorist attacks.
The Palestinian Authority and the Jordanian government are well aware of the genuine intensions of the external and internal Hamas leadership, as they clearly result from their numerous open declarations, to make every possible effort to disrupt the peace process.
It has been proved over the last three years that only an intense endeavor by all the parties involved in this difficult and long process and a close and sincere cooperation between them, can defuse the radical Islamic organizations’ terrorist schemes and thwart their intension to kill the hope in peace and reconciliation.