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Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade

Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade

LEADER: Marwan Barghouti

OVERVIEW

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade is a largely secular Palestinian nationalist militia group that emerged following the start of the second intifada in October 2000. It has strong links to the Fatah movement, formerly led by the late Yasser Arafat, and has carried out numerous suicide bombings and shootings on Israeli military targets and civilians.

HISTORY

On September 28, 2000, Ariel Sharon, leader of Israel's main right-wing opposition party, Likud, surrounded by an entourage of flag-waving political cronies and accompanied by hundreds of Israeli riot police, marched up to the Haram al-Sharif, the site of the gold Dome of the Rock that is the third holiest shrine in Islam. This deliberately provocative act was designed to show Israeli sovereignty over Muslim holy sites in East Jerusalem, and strengthen Sharon's position within his own party.

Sharon, a figure universally despised by Palestinians for his complicity in the Sabra and Shatila massacre two decades earlier, caused outrage. "This is a dangerous process conducted by Sharon against Islamic sacred places," Yasser Arafat told Palestinian television. As he came down 45 minutes later, a trail of fury had erupted. Palestinians threw whatever missiles came to hand at Israeli forces; riot police retaliated with tear gas and rubber bullets, and shot one protester in the face.

The following day, Palestinians, leaving the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem after Friday prayers, broke out into a riot, attacking Jews praying at the Western Wall under Temple Mount. Israeli police opened fire, killing five Palestinians and injuring 200. Over the following days, the teetering peace process instigated by the Oslo Accords seven years earlier, which had very nearly reached a conclusion that summer at Camp David, all but broke down as the worst violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the country's history broke out. This soon became recognized as the second intifada (uprising), or the al-Aqsa Intifada.

In the emergent chaos of this uprising, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) attracted worldwide condemnation for the brutality with which they suppressed rioting, often because they drew in innocent bystanders and, particularly, children. Nowhere, however, was this anger more palpable than in Israel's occupied territories. The armed wings of a number of Palestinian groups moved into action, launching defensive actions to protect its populations, launching guerilla attacks against Israeli military targets and, increasingly, attacks on Israeli citizens.

KEY EVENTS

2000:
Likud leader Ariel Sharon's visit to Temple Mount prompts rioting that leads to the al-Aqsa intifada.
2001:
The Palestinian Brigade of the Martyrs of al-Aqsa, claim responsibility for its first killing, conversely of one of Yasser Arafat's close allies: the Palestinian television chief, Hisham Mikki.
2001:
Al-Aqsa Martyrs take responsibility for a number of attacks on West Bank settlements.
2002:
Al-Aqsa bomber, Wafa Idris, is the first female to carry out a suicide attack.
2002:
Fatah Secretary General Marwan Barghouti arrested for the "murder of hundreds of Israelis" as alleged leader of al-Aqsa Martyrs. He denies the charge.
2003:
In bloodiest al-Aqsa attack two suicide bombers kill 23 and injure more than 100 in a Tel Aviv suburb.
2003:
BBC journalists learn that the Palestinian Authority was paying $50,000 a month to the al-Aqsa Martyrs.
2004:
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Queri says that al-Aqsa is part of the Fatah movement.
2005:
Al-Aqsa indicate willingness to agree a truce.

At the forefront of attacks on Israeli civilians was Hamas, the radical jihadist organization. Islamic Jihad, an offshoot of Hezbollah, was also involved in a number of incidents. On the other hand, Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement largely maintained its traditional distance from attacks on Israeli civilians and tried to uphold its image as comparative moderates. But as anger increased among the Palestinian population some began to see Hamas, and their suicide bombings, rather than Fatah, as the true "protector" of the Palestinian people.

Unpalatable though they may seem, suicide bombings enjoy broad support among Palestinians. Members of Fatah Tamzin, its armed wing, had been involved in many confrontations with the IDF in late 2000 and early 2001, and were also implicated in a number of civilian shootings in mid 2001. Some of these were attributed to the Martyrs of al-Aqsa, which security analysts claimed was a secular nationalist militia with links to Fatah. When it started paramilitary activity is unknown. On January 18, 2001, the Palestinian Brigades of the Martyrs of al-Aqsa claimed responsibility for a killing for the first time, but this was of one of Yasser Arafat's close allies: the Palestinian television chief, Hisham Mikki, who was killed at a Gaza beachfront hotel. In the summer of 2001, the Israeli government accused the same group of a number of attacks on West Bank settlements.

It was only in late 2001 that a definite pattern of violence linked to this group emerged. On December 12, gunmen opened fire on a bus of ultra-orthodox settlers traveling to the West Bank settlement of Emmanuel, killing eight and injuring 30. "This is in response to the recent killings by the Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip," said an anonymous telephone caller speaking to Reuters news agency. At the end of January 2002, Wafa Idris, a 28-year-old paramedic, became the first female suicide bomber in an attack that killed one and wounded 100. Once more, the al-Aqsa Martyrs claimed responsibility.

From there on, the attacks assumed an even more deadly direction. An al-Aqsa suicide bomber killed 11 at Beir Ysirael in Jerusalem on March 2, 2002; three were killed and 86 injured in a suicide bombing in central Jerusalem on March 21; two were killed and 29 injured by another female suicide bomber on March 29; six were killed and 104 injured in a suicide bomb attack on the market at Jaffa; a suicide bomber at a Jerusalem bus stop killed seven and injured 50 on June 19. And so the appalling list of violence against Israeli civilians went on through the rest of 2002, 2003, and into 2005, as the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade vied with Hamas to be the most insidious and deadly of Palestinian terror organizations.

There were questions as to whether or not this emergent extremist group was part of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement. Certainly if it was not, it managed to boost his prestige at a time when the Palestinians accused him of inertia in the face of Israeli repression, and when Hamas was starting to gain preeminence through its militancy. Most analysts, however, were left in no doubt that the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade was linked to Fatah, and many of those involved in suicide bombings were either Fatah members or closely linked to the organization. For instance, the three brothers of Wafa Idris were all Fatah members.

Arafat himself may not have directly led the organization, but he was certainly titular head. Asked by a PBS Frontline team if Arafat was in charge of the Brigade in March 2002, Jihad Ja'Arie, a Brigade leader, told the reporters: "Most naturally, the President, the brother, the leader—'Abu Amar' [Arafat's nom de guerre]—is the president of the state of Palestine and the head of the National Liberation Movement [Fatah], he is the one who makes the first and last decisions on all matters relating to the Palestinian street. We always abide by his decisions and also we abide by all the agreements entered into by the Palestinian Authority. We always abide by the decisions of the political leadership…."

In November 2003, BBC journalists learned that the Palestinian Authority—led by Arafat—was paying $50,000 a month to al-Aqsa. Palestinian ministers claimed that the money was an attempt to wean the gunmen away from suicide bombings and that the policy of paying the money had not been instigated by Arafat, although it was carried out with his knowledge and agreement. In any case, it was argued, the amounts of money given out (up to $250 each) were too small to buy weaponry.

In June 2004, the Palestinian Prime Minister, Ahmed Queri told Asharq al-Awsat, a hitherto obscure London-based Muslim newspaper, "We have clearly declared that the Aqsa Martyrs Brigade are part of Fatah. We are committed to them and Fatah bears full responsibility for the group." These comments, which were seized upon by the right-wing Jerusalem Post, have never been verified.

To the Israeli government, however, there was no doubt that the al-Aqsa Martyrs were part of the Fatah movement. In a report prepared by a team headed by Israel's Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, it argued that, "Arafat was personally involved in the planning and execution of terror attacks. He encouraged them ideologically, authorized them financially and personally headed the Fatah Al Aqsa Brigades organization." As evidence, Israeli intelligence presented several documents found in Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah, which included a request for financial aid outlying operations, propaganda, and arms purchases, as well as other documents signed by the group and addressed to Arafat and other high Palestinian officials. All the documents were signed by al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade that referred to itself as part of Fatah.

LEADERSHIP

MARWAN BARGHOUTI

Before his arrest in April 2002 as the alleged head of the al-Aqsa Martyrs, Marwan Barghouti was the rising star of the Fatah political movement and earmarked as a potential successor to Yasser Arafat as head of the PLO. At 43, he was relatively youthful and also untainted by accusations of corruption: both were a direct contrast to many in the Palestinian political hierarchy. While admired for his uncompromising calls to fight the Israeli occupation, he was seen by Israelis as a possible negotiating partner and had continually backed the stuttering peace process. He is also a fluent Hebrew and English speaker.

He served as General Secretary of Fatah prior to his arrest, and was in charge of the movement's operations in the West Bank, the area where it holds the most influence. It is unclear why Israel chose to target Barghouti, who had a reputation as a moderate and was one of the first Palestinian leaders to return from exile in 1994. However, from the onset of the al-Aqsa intifada in September 2000, Barghouti was forced into hiding in the Palestinian stronghold of Ramallah, fearing his arrest or assassination.

The troubled trial process, in which Barghouti and his defense witnesses refused to recognize the Israeli court and offer evidence, failed to shed much further light on his alleged crimes. He was acquitted of 21 of the 26 counts of murder with which he had been charged. It has been speculated that because of his knowledge of Hebrew, he had emerged on Israeli TV as the "voice of the intifada," and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sought to make an example of the next most prominent figure to Yasser Arafat. It has also been suggested that by sidelining the Palestinians "voice of moderation," Sharon's government sought to confront the PLO in a purely military confrontation. Given the inherent hawkishness of the Israeli Prime Minister, that is not an inconceivable prospect; nor, however, given the many murky links between Fatah and the al-Aqsa Martyrs, is it conceivable that Barghouti was actually guilty of the crimes with which he was accused.

In April 2002, Israel arrested Fatah's West Bank leader, Marwan Barghouti, a man widely expected to emerge as Yasser Arafat's eventual successor. They accused him of being the leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and, according to the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, the man behind the "murder of hundreds of Israelis." He was eventually tried for the murder of 26 Israelis and found guilty on five counts in May 2004. He maintains his innocence. Amnesty International criticized the trial process because of the use of torture.

In 2003, the Israeli government placed Arafat's compound in Ramallah under siege, bombarding it with shell fire. In September, its cabinet passed a resolution ambiguously calling for the "removal" of Arafat. Ostensibly, it was passed as a reprisal for the continued suicide bombings, although it was widely assumed that that was a convenient cover for the Israeli government to rid itself of its most ubiquitous opponent. As Arafat's biographer, Danny Rubenstein, put it, it was "a license to kill Arafat." It was abandoned the following month after U.S. pressure.

Arafat's death in November 2004, coupled with the efforts of Mahmoud Abbas, his successor as PLO leader, has seen a marked decline in the activities of all Palestinian militant groups, including the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. This has been heightened by the removal of illegal Israeli settlements from Gaza. In January 2005, al-Aqsa spokesman, Abu Mohammed, indicated that his organization would accept a truce, but added: "We think that all the factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, believe that this ceasefire must be mutual."

PRIMARY SOURCE
Israelis Kill Palestinian Militant Linked to Tel Aviv Bombing

Israeli soldiers on Thursday tracked down and killed an armed Palestinian militant who Israeli military officials said had helped orchestrate a recent suicide bombing and was planning further attacks. Palestinians criticized the action, saying it could jeopardize the fragile truce.

Israeli military officials said the militant, Muhammad Abu Khazneh, was a member of Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the bombing deaths of five Israelis at a Tel Aviv nightclub on Feb. 25. It was the deadliest single attack since the truce was announced Feb. 8.

Overall, the number of killings has dropped significantly since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, called for an end to violence. The two-week period between Thursday's incident and the Tel Aviv bombing was one of the longest without a killing on either side since the fighting erupted in September 2000.

But shooting exchanges still break out almost daily, and the Israelis and Palestinians have been making little progress in negotiations, with both sides expressing frustrations.

In Thursday's operation, Israeli forces surrounded the home where Mr. Khazneh was hiding in the village of Nazlat al Awasta, near Jenin in the West Bank. Using a loudspeaker, the troops called for everyone to come out, and all of them did—except for Mr. Khazneh. The soldiers then sent a trained dog inside to look for him, the military said.

Mr. Khazneh shot and killed the dog, and then fired on troops, according to the military. Soldiers returned fire and tossed grenades inside, later demolishing the house.

When the truce was announced last month, Israel pledged not to carry out operations in Palestinian areas unless facing attack. Military officials said Mr. Khazneh was a target because he was directly involved in the Tel Aviv bombing and was planning additional attacks.

Nafez Azzam, an Islamic Jihad leader in the Gaza Strip, told The Associated Press that the killing "does not encourage us to continue the state of calmness that currently exists on the ground."

In another development on Thursday, about 20 Palestinian gunmen linked to Mr. Abbas's political movement, Fatah, stormed a large Fatah meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The gunmen smashed windows and chairs and ordered hundreds of Fatah members out of the hall. As the crowd moved outside, the gunmen fired shots in the air. No one was hurt, but the meeting was called off.

The gunmen, who belong to Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed faction of Fatah, said they felt that they were being marginalized by the Fatah leadership.

The episode reflected the problems Mr. Abbas faces in his movement, which has dominated Palestinian politics for decades.

Meanwhile, Islamic Jihad and other armed factions have agreed in principle to a temporary halt in attacks, though compliance has been less than complete. The factions plan to discuss the truce in talks set to begin March 15 in Cairo.

Mr. Abbas plans to attend, and said he hoped the meeting would produce a stronger and more lasting truce. "There are no radical differences, and the Cairo dialogue should crown efforts that are under way," he told reporters in Gaza City.

But he also criticized the Israeli raid, saying it would make it more difficult for the Palestinian leadership to prevent, or at least limit, attacks from the Palestinian side.

"Quiet is required from us," Mr. Abbas said. "At the same time, it is also required from the Israelis, and the Israelis must not carry out these actions."

                                        Greg Myre

Source: New York Times, 2005

PHILOSOPHY AND TACTICS

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade are ostensibly a secular Palestinian nationalist paramilitary forces seeking to force Israel into a final political settlement and to drive Israeli forces out of Palestinian areas. Whether this encompasses the entire state of Israel or merely the occupied territories (i.e., Gaza and the West Bank) is unclear; however, in the context of the al-Aqsa intifada, it is seemingly the latter. Although Fatah is essentially set up on non-religious lines, Islamic fundamentalist rhetoric has flourished since 2000, and Fatah can be seen as answering a call of jihad that has seemingly come from everyone from clerics to otherwise secular politicians, like the late Yasser Arafat. In particular, the reasoning behind a "Martyrdom" (i.e., a suicide mission) is usually couched in religious terms.

Operating primarily in the West Bank, but also in Israel and Gaza, the al-Aqsa Martyrs progressed from attacks on Israeli military installations and isolated shootings on the West Bank's illegal settlements, to massive suicide bombing missions in Israel itself. The goal was seemingly to disrupt Israeli civil and economic life as much as possible.

OTHER PERSPECTIVES

"Israel, its supporters and apologists around the world, have sought, somewhat successfully, to demonize and vilify the suicide bombings and with them the entire Palestinian struggle for freedom and justice," wrote Khaled Amayreh in Al Ahram Weekly in 2003. "This demonisation became especially intense and acquired a strong momentum after the 11 September terrorist attacks in the US. Gruesome televised images enabled Israeli spin-doctors to de-contextualize the bombings by distracting attention from root-causes, namely Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

"Thus, Israeli officials and propagandists told the world that Palestinians were blowing themselves up because they hated Jews so much that they were willing to kill themselves to vent their feelings. The world was also told that the suicide bombings were rooted in Islam, which glorified martyrdom and death for the sake of God. This [is a] scandalous distortion of reality …

"For their part, the Palestinians argued that the suicide bombings were only a reaction to Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people. Indeed, virtually all Palestinian leaders argued that Israel, under the leadership of Ariel Sharon, a war criminal by any standard, was only offering the Palestinians the choice between dying as non-combatants, or killing themselves as suicide bombers in the streets of Israel. Palestinians have long argued that Israeli oppression has reached genocidal proportions, so much so that life for the vast bulk of Palestinians has become a virtual hell. In this situation, death as a martyr becomes not only inevitable, but desirable as well, if only to escape extreme suffering and persecution."

PRIMARY SOURCE
Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade (al-Aqsa)

A.K.A. AL-AQSA MARTYRS BATTALION

DESCRIPTION

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade consists of an unknown number of small cells of terrorists associated with the Palestinian Fatah organization. Al-Aqsa emerged at the outset of the 2000 Palestinian intifadah to attack Israeli targets with the aim of driving the Israeli military and settlers from the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem, and to establish a Palestinian state.

ACTIVITIES

Al-Aqsa has carried out shootings and suicide operations against Israeli civilians and military personnel in Israel and the Palestinian territories, rocket and mortar attacks against Israel and Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip, and the killing of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel. Al-Aqsa has killed a number of US citizens, the majority of them dual US-Israeli citizens, in its attacks. In January 2002, al-Aqsa was the first Palestinian terrorist group to use a female suicide bomber.

STRENGTH

Unknown.

LOCATION/AREA OF OPERATION

Al-Aqsa operates in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip, and has only claimed attacks inside these three areas. It may have followers in Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon.

EXTERNAL AID

In the last year, numerous public accusations suggest Iran and Hizballah are providing support to al-Aqsa elements, but the extent of external influence on al-Aqsa as a whole is not clear.

Source: U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Terrorism. Washington, D.C., 2004.

Alan Dershowitz, Professor of Law at Harvard and author of Why Terrorism Works, wrote in an article published in the Jerusalem Post and the Guardian that suicide bombing was the result of those in authority misusing their power, not the result of oppression or desperation. "As suicide bombings increase," he wrote. "[M]ore and more people have come to believe that this tactic is a result of desperation. They see a direct link between oppression, occupation, poverty and humiliation on the one hand, and a willingness to blow oneself up for the cause on the other. It follows from this that the remedy for suicide bombing is to address its root cause—namely, our oppression of the terrorists…. But the underlying premise is false: there is no such link. Suicide bombing is a tactic that is selected by privileged, educated people because it has proven successful. Some of the suicide bombers themselves defy the stereotype of the impoverished victims driven to desperate measures. Remember the 9/11 bombers, several of whom were university students and none of whom was oppressed by the US[?]"

"… The bombers accept death because they have been incited by imams preaching 'Kill the infidels.' Sheikh Muhammad Sayed Tantawi, the leading Islamic scholar at the elite al-Azhar University in Cairo, has declared that martyrdom operations—i.e., suicide bombings—are the highest form of jihad…. The time has come to address the real root cause of suicide bombing: incitement by certain religious and political leaders who are creating a culture of death and exploiting the ambiguous teachings of an important religion. Islamist young people are in love with death, claim some imams; but it is these leaders who are arranging the marriages between the children and the bomb belts."

SUMMARY

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade emerged so that Yasser Arafat could claim among his own people that he had matched the brutality of Hamas during the second intifada. Although politically expedient in the short term, the use of the al-Aqsa Martyrs merely served to bring the chaos of this perennial struggle to a new level of horror.

SOURCES

Web sites

Amnesty International "Report into al-Aqsa Intifada." 〈http://www.stoptorture.org.il/eng/images/uploaded/publications/43.pdf〉 (accessed October 21, 2005).

Brickman. "The Involvement of Arafat, PA Senior Officials and Apparatuses in Terrorism against Israel, Corruption and Crime." 〈http://www.brickman.dircon.co.uk/naveh.html〉 (accessed October 21, 2005).

freebarghouti.org. "Supporters of Marwan Barghouti." 〈http://www.freebarghouti.org/index.html〉 (accessed October 21, 2005).

Observer. "Equality in Death." 〈http://observer.guardian.co.uk/magazine/story/0,11913,1200794,00.html〉 (accessed October 21, 2005).

SEE ALSO

HAMAS

Hezbollah

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