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From the heart of the struggle: Interview with Nasser Juma

| 14 April 2005

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With Abu Mazen under increasing pressure to police his own people, Ian Douglas in Nablus speaks to Nasser Jumaa, leader of the city’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades
The old city is a sea of colours and eyes. My contact picks me up and we wait in a café for the interview that took seven weeks and much risk to arrange. “Did you notice the guy on the bridge?” No chance. “He just left.”

We pause for a moment, next heading off through a hundred small alleys, up and down steps and stairways, seemingly in circles, to an assigned location but Jumaa is not there. None other is either. “Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t show,” I’d been told earlier.

Nasser Jumaa is reputedly No. 1 wanted by the State of Israel. Between the first and second Intifadas he has existed one night here, one night there, for 17 years. Rarely can he spend more than a couple of hours in one place. As one of three who founded the Kataaeb Shuhadaa Al-Aqsa (Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades), and the only one remaining, Jumaa can be sure that no suspension of Israel’s assassination policy applies to him. But when we do hear a voice and he appears from around a corner his greeting is warm and his welcome genuine.

He is not what I expected, at least not what I feared. His soft-spoken voice is in harmony with his words, which are as much about feeling as reasoning. A journalist does not take sides, but it’s simply a fact that along with his eloquence his eyes betray sensitivity, intelligence and decency. This is a man who has been imprisoned by both sides, Palestinian and Israeli. He was tortured by the Palestinian Authority and has borne witness to, and been active within, over a quarter of a century of Palestinian struggle.

What are your reflections on the current situation as you experience it?
Right now we’re busy with internal issues; despite the continued existence of the occupation, internal issues take so much of our times, energy and attention. As you know, the entire Palestinian scene lacks harmony, or in other words a clear vision. I am speaking from several backgrounds; as one of the leaders of Kataaeb Shuhadaa Al-Aqsa, as a member of Fatah’s district committee — the supreme leadership body in Nablus — and of course as a Palestinian citizen, but let us talk about the current situation for the resistance. Perhaps we can say that the resistance has realised it made a number of mistakes leading to the result we have now. It should, from the very beginning, have found and followed a clear strategy, one that defined aims and a logic towards achieving those aims.

Unfortunately, wings of the Palestinian resistance with different political viewpoints and different religious beliefs, and in a way that was uncalculated, vied off with one another, without a clear vision, specifically in regard to the strategy of suicide operations, which in the end classified the Palestinians and the Palestinian resistance as terrorists, preventing us from defending the legitimacy of the resistance before public opinion, even in front ourselves as Palestinians, and with those whom we considered allies and friends. Our position is very weak regarding the legitimate right as Palestinians to resist, which at least in theory is guaranteed by international covenants, being an occupied country. This way we lost a right that should have been invoked in a mature manner.

Above all, we gave permission to Israel to use all their forces to hit the resistance, and to hit the Palestinians in general. We also gave to Sharon, to Sharon’s government — indeed to the Israeli logic of the conflict — permission to impose a lot of Israel’s goals, a lot of Sharon’s dreams, of controlling and grabbing the greatest possible extent of Palestinian lands. The resistance and the official political leadership were on two different sides, which prevented the Palestinian voice from reaching world public opinion. Because of the absence of a unified voice we ended up in a situation that is wracked with problems, a lot of corruption and chaos. We are searching now for a strategy to get out of this miserable abyss.

How will you do that?
I believe it will be hard. We’re talking now about the Palestinian elections as a strategy and point of entry to starting the process of reform and change in Palestinian political society. Palestinians at a ground level no longer trust the peace process, they don’t feel that we’re going in the right direction, that any real progress will be achieved, simply because of the existence of Sharon’s government. So we decided to start by getting our house in order. And we will be serious about that.

In the process of internal change, we crashed into a very important issue, one that represents something so important on the Palestinian stage, which is Fatah and the crisis within the movement; logically that the corruption in the Palestinian Authority (PA) is by default an extension of that existing in Fatah, or that it is reflected from Fatah to the PA. So it was necessary to reform Fatah — being the biggest power on the ground in Palestine — to achieve reform and change the PA. Now there is a battle inside Fatah between the old Fatah leaders, trying to control Fatah via the old guard, and the young leadership and the different organisational levels of Fatah bodies. It’s not always a dispute between right and wrong or angels and devils; it’s sometimes between two evils, within the corrupt core itself. Until now those with a new vision — that of amending and reforming — lack the presence necessary to make essential changes inside Fatah’s leadership institutions.

If we can make that change in Fatah then eventually we can make a big change inside the PA. This matter is not easy. It’s very complicated. For around 40 years Fatah has been dependent on a format that Arafat injected into it. It’s not easy to get rid of this right now.

Is Fatah still the biggest power on the ground?
Practically yes, but organisationally, as a result of the internal crisis, Fatah lost to Hamas — the second power on the ground — on more than one occasion. We see clearly that the internal disputes are reflected in the performance of Fatah, which offers space to smaller factions — much smaller even — to defeat it in more than one field.

Abu Mazen has charged officials with the task of “disarming wanted militants within two weeks”. Will he be able to?
This is also murky, or let us say ambiguous. If Abu Mazen talks about the arms of the resistance he knows that factions outside his influence, that refuse to disarm, own the majority of these weapons. But if he talks about the weapons that are used to create disorder — fawda al-silah, weapons outside the resistance–we previously agreed and we asked more than once for the PA to collect these arms. Maybe the whole issue is about Israeli pressure exercised on the PA and on Abu Mazen specifically, as if they are testing him, or pushing Palestinian society towards civil war as a result of these demands. It is very clear that this is a local Palestinian issue and when Israelis withdraw we will solve it internally.

A week ago the PA appointed General Nadal Asoli, security commander in Nablus, to the position of West Bank security chief. Is this a signal to the city of Nablus?
Asoli is one of the closest people to Haj Ismail Jabr, former head of the PA Preventive Security Services. He belongs to him and works under his supervision. Practically, when they fire Ismail and hire Asoli we don’t feel any real change. If they aimed to reform the security institutions by this change, sorry to say it, this is nonsense. It’s a joke. Changes are taking place within the same corrupt cycle. Asoli sees Ismail as his model.

On the expulsion of Al-Aqsa’s wanted from the presidential compound in Ramallah, what happened and do you feel betrayed by Abu Mazen?
In the end, it’s bad handling. From the very beginning, when the PA worked on the file of “the wanted” they didn’t deal with it appropriately, especially regarding Kataaeb Shuhadaa Al-Aqsa. At the time that the Palestinian political core was meeting and talking with the other Palestinian factions, and with the other military wings, the brothers of Kataaeb Al- Aqsa and their leaders were ignored. There was no communication apart from occasional messages passed from one or two security officials but never a Palestinian politician. No one bothered to inform us about new developments on the political level. This treatment is behind events in Ramallah.

When Abu Mazen ordered the removal of the wanted people from the muqataa, claiming that there were American guarantees for their safety, they didn’t feel secure, didn’t trust these guarantees as many incidents were preceded by such guarantees and agreements with the Israelis. The wanted brothers needed someone to hear their concerns and understand their point of view; that the Israelis were still in the streets of Ramallah and every other Palestinian city; that it’s our natural right to carry arms to defend ourselves — not to attack, but simply to defend if Israelis attack us. I think it’s a natural right for them to keep their weapons in defense of themselves. But political elites on the Palestinian side always deal with things in an upside down manner.

The real problem is that Israeli soldiers remain in the Palestinian territories, that the occupation remains, invasions continue. The Palestinian side should stay focused on this; push them to get out, for Israelis to withdraw. We are living in tension, worried about invasions, arrests, chasings, assassinations, and you are telling me to disarm? This is nonsense.

Do you think Abu Mazen will succeed in getting the Israelis out?
As Palestinians we’re used to tragic endings, whether to struggles on the political level or sacrifices in the field. What Abu Mazen is doing is a result of American and Israeli pressure. What we are asking of Abu Mazen, begging of him, is not to submit to their demands. We did not reach the point of open internal confrontation yet, which is, by the way, what the Israelis have been pushing for and laying bets on. Now they are trying to achieve this through the Palestinian leadership, with brother Abu Mazen — unilaterally and ahead of Israeli reciprocity — carrying out Palestinian commitments to the peace process. Abu Mazen and the leadership should pay very good attention to this issue. I repeat, we must not submit to this pressure.

What do you think the conditional amnesty reportedly offered by Israel to the list of wanted Palestinians?
During the negotiations about us — the wanted — I was maybe closer than anyone to those who were talking with the Israelis on this issue, and I was always sensitive to using the expression, “pardon”. I refused more than once the use of the expression “Israeli pardon of the wanted”. From the very beginning I also refused, and still refuse, a security-based solution to the wanted. I said there must be a political agreement because we are part of the general conflict, so we must have place in the political solution and not simply be contained according to security logic. We have long experience with the Israelis and we know how they like to arrange things.

Let us be clear, the resistance is not only Kataaeb Shuhadaa Al-Aqsa. There is also Hamas. Hamas has its own wanted, its own fighters, its own armed forces, but we can’t see, we don’t see coming up to the surface, any problem between Hamas and the PA. This problem only comes up with Shuhadaa Al-Aqsa and one of the main reasons is that there is a huge crisis inside Fatah. This crisis tried to express itself, and reflect itself, in Shuhadaa Al-Aqsa. Because the Shuhadaa is a Fatah wing for sure it lives this crisis of Fatah.

That’s why we always said we have to solve the Shuhadaa Al-Aqsa issue in an organisational manner as well as in the context of Fatah. On more than one occasion when the issue of the Kataaeb was transferred to the security level we objected and boycotted it. The proposed solutions always led us to a dead end, forestalling progress on other issues. The most important issue to Israel now is the truce. If the most important step is cooling down the situation, if everything follows from this, the Palestinian leadership should to give more attention to the issue of the wanted.

The Kataaeb from the beginning, when they spoke about a cooling down of the situation, made a huge effort to maintain calm in order to give Abu Mazen and the political leadership the chance to make all political efforts towards reaching solutions we think would benefit the Palestinian people. The leadership didn’t care or give real attention to this issue, the truce, with the Kataaeb, although through us something could happen that perhaps would put an end to this truce and put the Palestinian leadership in an embarrassing situation. The leadership should have redoubled their efforts with the Kataaeb, especially that they know that the Kataaeb doesn’t have a central or political leadership that they can deal with or reach an agreement with. They know that the Kataaeb consists of tens of groups and cells in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, so they would have needed to have made, in order to achieve an agreement and to ensure that the Kataaeb honoured the proposed truce, a much bigger effort.

The only thing we felt was their negligence and we remained for a while, we in Kataaeb Al-Aqsa, feeling we don’t know where we are going, because the Palestinian political elite doesn’t communicate with us.

Why did they ignore you when they know you’re armed?
I have long experience in this with the PA. First, the current state of corruption in the PA and the Palestinian leadership reflects itself on everything. I remember two years or more ago European parties moved to maintain a truce between the Palestinian military wings, including Kataaeb Al-Aqsa, and the Israelis. It was promoted by the European Commission — I don’t remember names but they used to come here a lot. They asked one of the leaders of the security forces to arrange a meeting with the Kataaeb commanders. He pointed to specific people who had no relation with the Kataaeb. He just wanted to seem like the one who controlled things on the ground. Of course the Commission considered that he was a leader of a security force and his information would be worth something.

The representatives of the Commission went to certain addresses, sat and talked with whoever was there, as if they were Kataaeb leaders, and they achieved a stack of easy agreements. They felt it was simple. And when they went to the Israelis to report the good news, the Israeli side asked, “With whom did you get these agreements — clowns sitting in their houses? If we wanted them we’d go get them.”

I emphasise again, the corruption exercised by Palestinian officials is reflected in everything, in every aspect of Palestinian life. Therefore we asked Abu Mazen from the beginning to start with political reform, embracing every Palestinian institution. The Palestinian Legislative Council, a parliament institution, is part of this political corruption. We need immediate and total reform, not only changing the faces but also procedures and strategies.

Isn’t there more than negligence and corruption at work here? You, yourself were imprisoned and tortured by the PA.
It is the scale of the corruption, which means there is no judicial institution that acts independently. This played a big role in keeping me jailed for 15 months; there is no logic to keeping me there without accusation, without charge, even if this charge were a lie at least would have I understood why I was there. Once a prosecutor came to me and said, “I don’t know why you’re here.” This was a sign I was imprisoned by a gang, not by an authority; only a gang would act in this manner.

Two days ago I was with the new minister of justice and I asked him about the men who tortured us. In few simple hours my friend, Mahmoud Jumail, was killed in front of my eyes. They were convicted by a Palestinian court and sentenced to 15-year terms. They didn’t spend 4 months in prison before being set free. One of these guys was sent to Algeria, for a training course in something related to the army, I don’t remember. So I asked the minister, “do I have the right to wonder why those men were released though the murder they committed was 100 per cent premeditated?” “You have a full right to complain,” he replied, “but I don’t know that anything will come of it.” Up until now he doesn’t talk about instituting real change in the legal institutions. He knows that this is related to the present Palestinian political situation, as much as the political situation is sound, as much as the legal apparatus is genuine, but he didn’t give a real answer.

These guys are now in Gaza. I have the ability to communicate with those who work with me there, with the Kataaeb in Gaza, and say, “Go and carry out the execution order… kill them,” but I’m criticising a situation of corruption so I don’t like to practice it. I don’t allow myself to do it. I remain bound by law.

The ceasefire you declared in November excluded soldiers and settlers. Do they remain legitimate targets despite the present ceasefire?
Indeed, it is this way. We can’t under any circumstances accept, as Palestinians, the existence of the settlers and the existence of the soldiers in the Palestinian territories. But from the point of view of not giving the Israelis excuses to break the ceasefire we suspended militant wing activities. That does not mean that we lend legitimacy to the presence of soldiers and settlers.

Would Palestinian resistance operations be possible without Israeli complicity? Isn’t there advantage in exposing the fissures within the Israeli society itself?
I can’t tell exactly if there’s any help in such operations. I can speak about how Sharon’s government prays to god to have such operations taking place, which gives reason and excuse to attack the Palestinians and to disavow Israeli obligations. It was good justification to build the separation wall, stealing a huge amount of land.

I’m referring to individuals, Israelis, who use the Intifada for personal profit.
I know one guy who had a friend, his girlfriend, who helped him. As I remember she was jailed for 13 years. I’m sure that no intelligence agencies, nor even settlers, help in committing such operations in the spirit of serving their own interests. It’s not even willful negligence. It’s obvious that were any facilitation offered, even merely that of neglecting security restrictions, this would lead to a government collapse.

We are living with them [the Israelis] for years. We understand them clearly; we know their red lines.

Didn’t Arafat once say the Palestinians didn’t need Hizbullah for weapons as the Israelis provided them?
For sure a segment of Israeli society makes it easier for us to get weapons, for money of course. The Palestinian side used this aberration within Israeli society; in other words, we used every means and method to get arms. Most of the weapons in the West Bank, or a great proportion of weapons, have come from Israel. But in general the lines of dependence are reversed: I can see that they depend on our failures. I already mentioned the stupid mistakes we have made. We didn’t have a clear strategy for the Palestinian resistance. We should have specified the place for its work as the occupied territories, and made its target the settlers and the soldiers that exist to protect them. It would have been possible this way to win a voice within Israeli society. It would also have prevented outsiders from denying our rights to defend our land and expel those who stole and occupied our land.

Members of Al-Aqsa in the West Bank reportedly said a couple of days ago they received money from Hizbullah to fund operations. Is this true?
I’m not aware of anyone saying so, but a relation with Hizbullah started in the early moments of this Intifada. Hizbullah fights the same enemy on the same land, and there is a natural and legitimate affinity between liberation movements and resistance movements worldwide. We are not ashamed to say there is a relation on this level. Hizbullah recognised that the Palestinian resistance movement needed help and it offered help, but without interfering in internal Palestinian affairs or seeking to shape the goals of the resistance. As for Iran, however, Hizbullah’s main sponsor, perhaps they wish that the Palestinians continue fighting Israel, and have an interest in the continuance of the conflict, so that attention is drawn away from them.

Mustafa Barghouti once said the Israelis want Palestinians to feel they lurk behind every house, every window. Does Israel have a hand in the destruction of trust within Palestinian society?
We’ve already mentioned that Israel is eager to see internal clashes within Palestinian society and its political institutions. This is not new. Certain tactics are used that keep Palestinians busy and then Israelis interfere in different ways. No one speaks optimistically about the near future. Everyone fears an explosion in the situation at any moment. The reason behind this is the Israeli insistence on never giving the Palestinians their legitimate rights in their lands. The continuous expansion of settlements, the continued construction of the wall, the permanent creation of problems in the daily life of Palestinians, the huge number of roadblocks and military checkpoints; all these things will push the ceasefire to end. No nation could continue this way, under this pressure.

History will record that they, the Israelis, invented one thing: the world’s biggest prisons. They build prisons on people — literally over them. The life that Israel has imposed upon Palestinians is impossible to live, and there will come a day, it isn’t far away, when the prisons will be destroyed. God alone gifted us with the mental power, the fortitude and stamina, to endure under enormous pressure and in impossible circumstances.

And the future?
We, the brothers and leaders of the Kataaeb Al-Aqsa, played a leading role in the ceasefire and don’t want to be in the lead of it collapsing. We know very well that Israel has no interest in ceasefires, as illustrated by the assassinations of Raaed Al- Karmi and Salah Shehadeh in January and August 2002, both in the context of ceasefires on the Palestinian side.

So we expect that Israel is striving to find ways of ending the current ceasefire, principally because Sharon’s government’s existence is predicated on war not peace. Given that it has to create reasons for its existence, it has to create conditions of war.

The Kataaeb remains alert to all scenarios, to all possibilities, and along with all the military wings, we will learn well, you can be assured, from past mistakes.

The interviewer is visiting professor in political science at An-Najah National University, Nablus, Palestine.

This article was first published by Al-Ahram Weekly, 14-20 April 2005, Issue #738: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2005/738/re4.htm
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We negate and we must negate because something in us wants to live and affirm — Friedrich Nietzsche