A Growing Unity Against Israel
Palestinian Militant Groups, Once Rivals, Forge Alliances
By Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 2, 2004; Page A01
JERUSALEM -- Three years ago, members of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah political movement created the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades to compete with Hamas -- in effect, to see which organization's armed wing could send the most suicide bombers against Israel and win the most support among Palestinians.
Today the former rivals have forged alliances, a shift that is complicating Israeli efforts to thwart major attacks and blurring the ideological lines between nationalist and religious factions, according to Palestinian militants, analysts and senior Israeli military officials.
In addition to al-Aqsa and Hamas -- formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement -- other militant groups have also participated in collaborative efforts, most notably Islamic Jihad. The growing trend toward cooperation emerged just over a year ago, Palestinian fighters and Israeli generals say, in a bid to combat the increasing success of Israeli forces in targeting, killing or capturing militant leaders and their operatives.
"Since they're having problems carrying out terror operations, they're cooperating" with one another, Maj. Gen. Yisrael Ziv, the Israeli military chief of operations, said in an interview at his Tel Aviv office. "One organization has the money; another has the guy that knows the area -- the best guide; the third has the best suicide bomber."
"We found we do best when we work together," said a street leader of the al-Aqsa group in the Jabaliya refugee camp north of Gaza City. The 27-year-old shop owner spoke on condition that he be identified by only his last name, Abu Mishal, because he feared being targeted by Israeli forces.
In a strike that several Israeli officials described as stunning in its audacity and planning, Hamas, al-Aqsa and Islamic Jihad attacked an Israeli military checkpoint on March 6 at the Erez border crossing between Gaza and Israel using jeeps disguised to look like Israeli military vehicles. Two Palestinian policemen, two al-Aqsa gunmen and one each from Hamas and Islamic Jihad were killed in the incident.
"This operation is part of the continuing joint operations," the three groups said in a combined communique posted on the Hamas Web site soon after the attack. "It is emphasizing the path of resistance and unity."
On March 14, Hamas and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades asserted responsibility for the double suicide bombing that killed the two attackers and 10 Israelis at the port of Ashdod, about 20 miles north of Gaza. In a mutual communique, the two groups stressed that "joint, qualitative operations" with different factions would be the hallmark of future attacks.
Relations among Hamas, al-Aqsa and Islamic Jihad have become a matter of particular importance since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suggested that Israel might withdraw Israeli troops and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.
Though plans for such a move are still being debated, an Israeli pullout presumably would leave Gaza under the control of the Palestinian Authority, which is led by Arafat and dominated by his Fatah movement. But Hamas is vastly more popular, and Israelis and Palestinians have expressed fears that any power struggle could be violent and ultimately disastrous. In recent weeks, clashes have erupted in the Gaza Strip between Hamas militants and members of Arafat's Palestinian security forces, even as Hamas has coordinated attacks against Israeli targets with al-Aqsa.
In the aftermath of Israel's assassination of Hamas's spiritual leader and founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, last month, the Palestinian factions took immediate steps that suggested they were cooperating rather than jockeying for positions of power. Hours after Yassin was killed, most of the organizations issued statements urging all groups to coordinate in attacks against Israel.
Those messages reflected how far the Palestinian groups have moved toward working together, a process that has evolved in the past year from random cooperation among members of local cells into more organized militant operations against Israel.
In 2002, responsibility for a handful of attacks was asserted by more than one group, but Israeli military officials said they believed most of those claims represented competing bids for publicity rather than actual joint operations. In 2003, the groups said they coordinated seven major attacks and a half-dozen smaller ones.
Since the start of this year, militant groups have asserted joint responsibility for three of the eight major attacks conducted against Israelis. Though the number of attacks is lower in comparison to previous years, Israeli military officials said the greater proportion of combined operations is significant and ominous.
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