The Other Palestinian Militant GroupsWednesday 08/11/2017

Given the well-known profile of Hamas, you may be forgiven for thinking that they are the only militant group in the Palestinian territories. Their famous green banners, softly-spoken leader Khaled Meshaal and rallies attended by tens of thousands have elevated their profile to global recognition. However, their military wing the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades are by no means the only militant group in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

The al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade are associated with the governing Fatah party and are, at least theoretically, a secular entity[1]. Rather than impose theocratic rule over Israel and the Palestinian territories, its intention is to expel Israelis from the territory by means of armed resistance. Believed to have been established in late 2000, the Brigade became proficient in the practice of suicide bombing – a trademark of Hamas. Examples of this include the suicide bombing on a bus in Rehavia in January 2004[2], and the twin-suicide bombing at the Tel Aviv bus station that killed 23 people in January 2003[3]. After the Palestinian intifadas and the international community’s intolerance of Palestinian terrorism, the group remained largely dormant. On July 26, 2007, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas announced the disarmament of ‘all the armed militias and irregular military or paramilitary groups’ existing in the Palestinian Authority[4]. The militiamen were ordered to turn in their weapons to the PA, sign a declaration renouncing terror and then had the option of being absorbed into the PA’s security forces. Conventional wisdom would suggest such a disarmament, in addition to Fatah’s adherence to the Oslo Accords and the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s 1993 rejection of violence and terrorism, would negate the existence of a Fatah-affiliated military group.

However, during Operation Protective Edge in July 2014, their headquarters in the West Bank announced an ‘open war against the Zionist enemy in all [possible] ways with [operational] surprises, in accordance with all the laws and international conventions that bestow on us [the Palestinian people] the right to armed struggle so as to remove this occupation from all the Palestinian land[5]’. While their exact membership is unknown, they published a list in August 2016 detailing over 30 attacks they were responsible for between July and the first half of August. These include firing toward the Gush Etzion Junction on July 23 and August 10, as well as shooting near the settlement of Itamar on July 25[6].

The other important group is the Al-Quds Brigade, the armed wing of the Islamist movement Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). In terms of ideology, they are largely indistinguishable from Hamas and their military wing. They reject the idea of living alongside an Israeli state and advocate for continued armed resistance. The group operates primarily out of the Gaza Strip and to a lesser extent in the West Bank due to the PA’s security arrangements with Israel. In Gaza, they are known to work closely with Hamas and have coordinated rocket attacks together, according to PIJ leader Ramadan Shalah[7].

Other smaller groups, with limited military capabilities, include the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and Harakat al-Sabireen. However, these groups suffer from limited financial assets and much of their intended recruitment goes to Hamas’ military wing, the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ brigade and the Al-Quds brigade.

The challenge for Israel is how to engage an enemy that is a non-state entity. These groups operate in densely populated areas and often intentionally fire out of civilian infrastructure. Furthermore, many militants are often in contravention of international humanitarian customary and treaty law when they are either not appropriately uniformed or wear the uniforms of the Israeli military. One such example was the use of a van with a ‘TV’ insignia by members of the Al-Quds Brigade and the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade to attack an Israeli military position on the border with Gaza in 2007[8]. Questions relating to the responsibility of militant groups to international humanitarian law are explored in the JIJ Report Hamas and the International Human Rights Law.

[1] Robinson, P. 2008, Dictionary of International Security, Polity Press, UK, p. 16

[2] Aderet, O. 2010, ‘The Intifada That Was’, Haaretz, October 1, viewed 8 March 2017, http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/the-intifada-that-was-1.316608

[3] Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2003, ‘Suicide bombing at old central bus station in Tel-Aviv-5-Jan-2003’, January 5, viewed 9 March 2017, http://mfa.gov.il/MFA/MFA-Archive/2003/Pages/Suicide%20bombing%20at%20old%20central%20bus%20station%20in%20Tel-.aspx

[4] Abbas cited in Halevi, J. D. 2014, ‘The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Military Wing of Fatah, Is Officially Returning to Armed Struggle and Terror’, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, August 20, viewed 9 March 2017, http://jcpa.org/al-aqsa-martyrs-brigades-military-wing-fatah/

[5] Halevi, J. D. 2014, ‘The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Military Wing of Fatah, Is Officially Returning to Armed Struggle and Terror’, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, August 20, viewed 9 March 2017, http://jcpa.org/al-aqsa-martyrs-brigades-military-wing-fatah/

[6] ibid

[7] Hashem, A. 2014, ‘Islamic Jihad leader: negotiations gain “nothing”’, Al-Monitor, March 14, viewed 9 March 2017, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/03/islamic-jihad-pa-israel-ramadan-abdullah-shalah.html

[8] Human Rights Watch 2007, ‘Gaza: Armed Palestinian Groups Commit Grave Crimes’, June 13, viewed 9 March 2017, http://pantheon.hrw.org/legacy/english/docs/2007/06/13/isrlpa16156.htm

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