CNN and other mainstream news agencies like the BBC are reporting a truce between the occupation forces and the Islamist wing of the Palestinian resistance, who’s ascent to the cease-fire came a little later than those of other armed factions. Interestingly, not all of the Brigades seem to share the same understandings of what a truce entails and it will be interesting to see for how long Abbas can play both the game the Americans and Israelis are expecting him to play while at the same time staving off the popular demands of his domestic constituency.
What follows is an interview with Nasser Aweis, one of the leaders of the Al-Aqsa Brigades who is currently being held in isolation in the Beer Saba’ prison. Aweis is originally from the Balata refugee camp, near Nablus, and is one of the camps best known political prisoners (arguably more popular than Hussam Khader, another well known and respected political prisoner in the camp). Nasser’s brother Mohamed Aweis was killed almost one year ago, at the end of February 2004, during clashes with the Israeli military. Most of Balata showed up for his funeral, illustrating the degree of respect the family enjoys in the camp. As a result of Nasser’s grassroots support, the family home is frequently made the object of Israeli military reprisals – raids that are part of the nearly daily attacks on Nablus and its surrounding camps. Nasser has also undergone considerable hardships in prison. Some recent articles on conditions at Beer Saba’ can be found here and here.
Anyway, in the interview he outlines pretty much the current position of the Al-Aqsa brigades on the ceasefire and the way they would like the coming months to play themselves out. Interestingly, he calls for a rejuvination of Fatah’s grassroots, a revival of the PLO, the inclusion of voices from the Diaspora during this critical juncture in the Palestinian struggle, and sticking to the ‘redlines’ of the national liberation movement – which in his formulation, echoing the thoughts of many, includes things like the right of return. He also advocates a closer dialogue with Hamas, while paying lipservice to Abu Mazen’s program (as formulated by the Brigades).
The document is interesting from a number of perspectives and I’m putting it out for commentary. The position of groups like the Al-Aqsa Brigades, Hamas, the PFLP, Hezbollah, and Moqtada Sadr’s militia in Iraq are interesting at the moment. They all seem to have gone quiet and are apparently reassessing their strategies in the coming period. It seems that key players in the region are furiously undertaking new calculations and trying to find a place for themselves in the ‘new’ Middle East being shaped by the recent elections in Palestine, Iraq, and of course in the United States.
An important measure of whether or not the resistance factions will get anything from the current bartering over Palestine will be the nature of the political prisoners released and to what extent they’ll be able to resist attempts by the PA, the Israelis and the USA to co-opt their leadership cadres (i.e. to what extent will the resistance factions insist on achieving the national goals they’ve set for themselves). It may be that many groups will be using this period as a means of rebuilding their movements – shifting the focus of the struggle to other arenas. As international solidarity activists we need to be prepared for the implications of such a shift. The interview with Nasser Aweis that follows touches on some of these issues, highlights some of the contradictions evident in the ‘mainstream’ of the resistance movement and points to potential areas of contention in the future that are worth taking into consideration.
Beer Saba’ Prison
Sunday, 30 January 2005
Nasser Aweis is the leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. He was born in 1970 and hails from the Balata refugee camp near Nablus. He was arrested on 13 April 2002 and is being held in isolation in the Beer Saba’ prison.
[This article was translated into English from the French “Entretien Avec Naser Uways” which originally appeared on the website http://www.arab48.com].
On the origins of Fatah
“Many years prior to 1965, groups of young people having faith in the justness of their cause, issuing from the distress, suffering and exile of our people, met in order to forge a new path where defiance, initiative and action at the historical level were mixed in with each other. They founded the Fatah movement that has led the Palestinian struggle in all the stages of its exile, which saved our people from its defeatist state in order to create a people that can struggle for its liberty, [its right of] return and independence.
By its revolutionary action as a liberation movement, Fatah waged battles on all ideological and existential fronts in order to affirm the Palestinian identity, in order to present the Palestinians as human beings having rights and desiring life, liberty and an end to occupation and ignorance.”
On the Ideological Pluralism within the Fatah Movement
“Historically, the Fatah movement has grown to encapsulate all possible ideological orientations and visions, while doctrinaire groups also managed to emerge in the field of Palestinian political action. Due to its suppleness – resulting from its refusal to adopt a precise ideological line – we have witnessed within the movement discussions and dialogues, which where sometimes quiet and sometimes hot, between divergent positions, between those who wanted to pursue the resistance until the end and those who preached a reasonable pragmatism, between realists and dreamers, between those who proposed a tactical vision going through stages and those who proposed a broader strategic vision.
All these positions and divergences pushed Fatah to unify itself, to develop itself, to find solutions in order to escape the dangers of inaction and fossilization, through the continual search for active and realistic responses to the problems posed by the Palestinian situation, both in their regional and international dimensions.
It is by this spirit that the Fatah movement was led, from its first cells, to the stage of open military confrontations, to the attempts to find a realistic settlement to the Palestinian question in order to finally return to a stage of confrontations with the occupation – confrontations triggered by Israel’s aggression and its refusal to accept the consequences of a just peace, because, as an occupying power, it was unable to free itself of its oppressive mentality when confronted with a people that had decided to be free.”
Fatah, Power and the Growth of Anger
“But, for more than ten years now, the Fatah movement’s activists, supporters and militants are living the disappointments engendered by the [Palestinian] Authority, given that Fatah is responsible for the project of the Authority and its rule.
The lack of separation between Fatah and the Authority has served to widen the circle of disillusionment within the ranks of the movement. Voices were raised demanding reforms, to reinvigorate the organization, but all these calls and criticism were put to the side. This pushed many of Fatah’s cadres – especially those that knew the pain and suffering of the prisons and the darkness of cells – to seek a way out of this state of deceptions and to address the movement’s incapacity to respond to problems that were gripping it from within. They took the initiative of establishing the armed militia units of the Fatah movement, units that eventually became the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.”
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades – The Beginings
“After a long series of consultations between sincere members of the movement, the Brigades were introduced in order to put to an end the anarchical positions prevailing in the thoughts of some people. The first consultations took place in order to put to an end the ideas of those who wanted to distance the movement from its resistance dimension.
The Brigades were founded in pursuit of the Fatah movement’s heritage of struggle and resistance. I remember how the martyr and founder of this movement Yasser Badawi would say: “We will make the Brigades into the sword of Fatah, the summit of Al-Asifa (the armed forces of Fatah), the heart and the conscience of the poor.” I also still remember how the symbol of the Brigades was conceived by one of its initial founders and leaders, starting from the symbol of Al-Asifa.
From this period the first big names of the Brigades emerged, those that through their discussions and consultations were seeking to create a corps within Fatah capable of meeting the challenges ahead. Many of these have fallen as martyrs since then (and there are many among this number), while others are found in the prisons of the occupation regime, in isolation, having to face-up to the arrogance of the occupation and its harsh judgments without loosing morale or the will to struggle. Others have continued the path of resistance, protected by our mothers and children.”
Why the Brigades?
“If the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades were produced by the profound reflections of our people who were seeking to respond to the challenges confronting the nation and the movement, they have also acted as the avant-garde of our people, representing at the same time the peoples anger against the official cadres of the movement, cadres that have become a burden to the movement, that direct without directing, that profit without being useful, that stand at the back of the ranks instead of being at their forefront, seeking excuses, distant from the preoccupations of the grassroots of the movement and its activists, resigned to an outcome to which they say there is no alternative.
It is like an official cadre that served to prevent the rejuvenation of the movement and that furthermore contributed to restraining its popularity, since the official cadres have become incapable of reading the realities of the situation, the movement and the people. These cadres have become prisoners of old theses and slogans that the militants of the movement are tired of repeating. Of course, within this framework certain people have been protected, have worked and have innovated but without contributing to real change.
The Brigades thus also appeared as an expression of the state of anger against the Authority, which was accompanied by growing forms of structural corruption. The Authority tried to bring the PLO and Fatah and all other Palestinian organizations towards new positions, positions that represented lost causes. These flaws weren’t necessarily the result of [the Authority’s] establishment, but due to its implementation (which was extremely bad, and included a whole range of mistakes and experiments in which people who weren’t qualified for certain tasks were put in positions that touched every aspect of the lives of Palestinian citizens, including their security and lives). With the Brigades, we were able to strike a blow at, and put pressure on the corrupted ones, but the fear of an internal war and the incipient anarchy always brought us back to reflect on such a course of action.
The Al-Aqsa Brigades are not a spontaneous phenomenon, but represent a solid attitude in response to the Israeli aggression against our people. They are a clear message to the occupation, signaling the capacity of the movement to resort back to armed struggle when needed. It is not possible for us to stand around with our arms crossed while our people are being massacred everyday by the occupation forces. But if we say that the Brigades are for peace they are also against submission, and, in this battle, the Brigades have offered the best of their sons as martyrs, without hesitation, in order to achieve liberty, [the right of] return, and independence so that they have become like stars in the heavens above our homeland.”
Position Regarding the Ceasefire Proposals
“Many are asking themselves these days about the position of the Brigades concerning the evolution of the situation following Arafat’s death, the election of brother Mahmoud Abbas to the presidency of the Authority and the [Palestine Liberation] Organization, as well as brother Farouk Qaddoumi’s ascendancy to the presidency within Fatah, and we could all ask at this stage: Will the Brigades abandon the armed struggle? Has their existence run its course? Or are the Brigades a cadre that is independent of the will of the Fatah leadership? Will the Brigades accept once again a new cease-fire?
We all know that the Brigades weren’t created by a single decision and they will not be disbanded by a single decision. All of these crucial questions will find their answers as a function of the evolving situation. The Brigades are not an end-in-and-of-themselves, but a means.
We wanted to escape from a state of silence and move towards action, in order to put end to the occupation and achieve reforms within the Palestinian house, in order to lift the movement up again. That is why the Brigades cannot be disbanded by a simple decision, and why their activity will not cease as long as the occupation continues to target our people and our lands, as long as it assassinates our cadres, our youth, our children, our women and our elderly. Even though we in the Brigades have paid dearly for the Fatah movement and our just cause, we will be completely serious in analyzing what is put before us and consider any serious positions that offer a path for the future.
But we will not accept any ridiculous solutions. We will on the other hand support all efforts announced by Abu Mazen seeking reform, an end to the occupation, the maintenance of the national ‘red lines.’ We are once again willing to give a chance for political action, we will not be a stone obstructing all that is positive and fertile and which goes in the direction of the interests of our people.
But the occupation must know that the people have their loyal soldiers who will stay on guard to defend them and push back any aggression against them or any attempt to touch its leadership on the ground or the new political leadership. Within this framework, the leadership of the Brigades that is currently in prison appreciate the words of Zakaria Zubaidi affirming that any ceasefire will not take place until after the entire leadership of the Brigades on the ground is consulted. This includes both those leaders who are in prison as well as those without.
What do we want from the new leadership of Fatah, from the Authority and from the PLO? We are demanding that in the next phase we become firmly engaged in the electoral programs that were announced as the program of the Fatah movement. It is time to demand a settling of accounts with corrupted officials, to punish them, to prevent them from pursuing their policies. They are few in number, but their actions are huge and surpass the imagination.
It is time to restore order in the street, to supress weapons that don’t serve the resistance.
It is time to put an end to the actions of those who are profiting from the situation in order to take advantage of our citizens, their security and the source of their revenues.
It is time to see new faces in the ministries, capable people, real patriots.
It is time to put an end to clientelism, the wasting of public finances and frivolous spending practices that go towards those close to the court or are spent on illusory institutions.
It is time to return to the institution and primacy of the law. The citizen wants to see effective acts translated into reality. Abu Mazen shouldn’t allow those who are corrupt to mass themselves around him, because they are the assassins of all those who are sincere and a sickness killing all that is fertile.
We are asking for a new period to be initiated in every sense of the term. A period where that which is good is protected and that rejects what is bad, where the rights of people are protected, where people are equal before the law, where all the dossiers concerning the pillage and theft of Palestinian institutions are opened to scrutiny, where all the dossiers on the assassinations of the last few years and cases where the security of our citizens were endangered are opened.
We are asking for the reinforcement of national unity, to distance ourselves from the civil struggle [sic?], to reinforce democratic values by resorting to the ballot in order to elect the true representatives of our people, including all of its political components, classes and groups.
We are asking that now, more than ever, the leadership becomes concerned with equality, to put forward a program of real development in which the Palestinian individual becomes the pivot of this development by reinforcing his resistance and his creativity.
At the level of the PLO, it is necessary to convene and hold a national council. It is not acceptable for the PLO not to take into consideration our people that are in the Diaspora. There are important Palestinian communities that are suffering in the world from a lack of interest or concern, and that need to be realistically represented in such a national council.
It is equally necessary to pursue discussions and dialogue with our brothers in Hamas in order to reach a unified national program that will bring all of us to take part in the PLO, which remains the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, wherever they are found. Everyone must know that the PLO and its legitimacy are a red-line that
cannot be questioned; the legitimacy of the PLO has cost our people dearly over the course of some hard battles, a price that runs like a river flowing with the blood of our martyrs.
At the level of Fatah, we are demanding that the brothers Abu Mazen, Farouk Qaddoumi and Abu Maher Ghnaym act seriously in holding a general congress of the movement, to feed the movement and its institutions with new blood, and to finally do away with the concept of “member of the central committee or the revolutionary council until death.”
This congress will constitute at the same time a new step forward as well as provide continuity for the different generations of the movement, reversing the trend of the past in which generations within the movement were divided one from the other, where there was once a disconnect between the leadership and the organization.
Within this optic, Fatah must identify the challenges it will face in the coming legislative elections. It cannot put forward candidates that have hurt our people, candidates that have attacked its properties and security. The Fatah movement has a reserve of men, capable and sincere people that have looked at their own hands and that are clean from dirty money or the blood of our peoples’ children. We must absolutely avoid putting forward during the elections personalities that haven’t proven their capabilities in previous periods.”
Where Next for the Brigades?
“Without hesitations or stalling, we must give a chance for the political and internal actions that Abu Mazen has initiated. We consider that anybody who places obstacles in his way is somebody who seeks to maintain anarchy in an attempt to avoid the settling of accounts.
In reality, only the corrupted ones and the profiteers will try to
question the march of brother Abu Mazen and the political program proposed, which is the program of the Fatah movement – including all that this program means in terms of clarity, confidence and firmness.
The Brigades will always be, as they have been, unified around a single man, they will be present in the most difficult of conditions in order to act and take the initiative if necessary. They will be the respectful soldiers of decisions at important moments and the defenders of our people at the sign of any aggression. We will return to our studies, to our jobs and workplaces, but the Brigades will remain ready to act as soon as it appears that discussions with the enemy are leading nowhere, and there will be no ceasefire without the enemy paying the price.
That price is the withdrawal of the Israelis, the end of assassinations, the freeing of the prisoners, freedom for all organizations, the judgment of corrupt officials, the pursuit of internal reforms, the increased oversight of public moneys, the refusal of all partial solutions, the maintenance of the national red-lines, including a dignified life for the fighters who offered their life for the defense of liberty. It is a measure that must be executed in a way that the fighters can preserve their dignity and pride. It is not a point we can compromise on.
But does this mean that the Brigades will dismantle themselves or be disbanded? No, the Brigades as individuals are not finished as they are part of the people. The Brigades will be ready to act in all coming struggles following an Israeli aggression or attack.
Finally, it is necessary to say that the Fatah movement is currently living through a difficult period in which no one can confirm with certainty the source of problems. The situation seems to be indicating however that there are two choices before the movement: either it confront itself with its own reality and the reality of its people, through undertaking a serious and realistic critique of past practices and seeking a future through loyal and capable men (all the while marginalizing those who’ve acted improperly or sowed corruption in the movement), or it will face dissolution and vanish, which would be a hard shock to the Palestinian national movement, probably for several generations to come.”